Thursday, 15 March 2007

The Brilliantined Babu and Callisthenic Carol

I seem fated to sit down wind from people. If there is a seat at a bus stop and I am the sole occupant, invariably the next arrival will position themselves between me and the prevailing breeze.

As you may well presume there are disadvantages in this unfortunate juxtaposition, especially when the sun is at its zenith and my new neighbour has run breathlessly to catch the next bus.

There are products on the supermarket shelves of Asia that once similarly graced the groceries of the western world but no longer do so. Bay Rum is a classic fragrance that brings back childhood memories of barbershops and cut-throat razors. It is a fragrant toilet water with a long history and is made from the oil extracted from the leaves of the Bay tree.

Brilliantine (image left) is another that I had long forgotten but seems never to have gone out of fashion in parts of Asia . I have discovered that there are several different varieties and fragrances ranging from the century-old, Pashana Original whose principal binding ingredient is glycerine, to various others types with combinations of rosemary and sage, blended with castor oil.

Its overly-liberal use is much favoured by some members of the local Indian community and each morning I have a mildly obese gentleman with coiffured and slicked-down locks who obscures my view of oncoming buses.

Another morning favourite of mine is a Chinese lady I have affectionately christened "Callisthenic Carol". She makes her way to the bus stop with regimented regularity, timing her arrival so as to allow her to undertake a set of vigorous warm-up exercises behind the bus shelter. Her flailing arms and muted grunts of exertion are a marked contrast to the posture of the sedentary Babu.

Incidentally, I use the term Babu in its Indian derivation not that of the Taiwanese, where the same name is given to an icecream cart.

Using the public transport of Singapore is a great way to meet the real people of this country. The MRT is often too packed to take in the personalities and private cars tend to shield one from the rest of the world. Buses are our preferred mode of transport.

Yesterday we took the 970 bus to Holland Village. Up until then I had largely resisted any temptation to frequent expatriate haunts. Holland Village is one such location. Having come to Singapore to live with the locals, a visit to this part of town was not high on the agenda. However I must confess that the experience was enjoyable and a I succumbed to a large steak meal at the Hogs Breath Brasserie - they also served a large green salad on the side which was delicious.

And there wasn't the slightest whiff of Bay Rum anywhere!

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Saucy Tales

Three days ago we held the last event for our university's orientation week - a traditional 'Aussie barbeque'. As with the cricket match mentioned in the previous posting, the barbeque further highlighted the cultural values of our Australian-sponsored institution in its new Singaporean environment.

As Singaporeans enjoy food of all varieties we were on to a winner before the first 'snarler' hit the embers. Most students would have experienced barbequed food but few would have tried the 'dinkum' Australian version.

I am pathologically ill disposed towards vegetarian food that attempts to masquerade as the 'real thing' and I include so-called vegetarian sausages in this aversion. At the barbeque three types of sausage were provided - beef, pork and vegetarian. The latter had the texture of sawdust and a taste to match.

Interestingly, at the event's conclusion the only food remaining in any quantity were the vegetarian sausages, which I guess tells us something.

There was another surprise as we prepared our food for consumption. Most aficionados of Aussie tucker will tell you that you can't have a sausage without tomato sauce to smother it. Most Kiwis will tell you exactly the same. Our food caterers entered into the spirit of the occasion by providing extra large bottles of sauce, or at least that is what we supposed them to be.

The first person in the food queue soon discovered that the providers had not completely understood the menu and had instead provided tomato juice. The result was a very sodden bun that was barely edible. Our salvation was the discovery of two bottles of the 'real thing' which someone else had kindly provided.

The barbeque was a great success and a credit to our senior staff, who entered into the spirit of the event and collectively turned their hands to operating the barbeques.

Today being a Sunday, we ventured out of our condo to have lunch in town.

At the risk of turning into yet another Singapore food blog, can I mention the Lao Beijing restaurant on the third floor of Plaza Singapura. "Lao" means old and this restaurant specialising in the simple, classical food of Beijing and Northern China.

Their handmade noodles were excellent with a nice firm texture and nourishing broth. I consider this luncheon further preparation for a trip later in the year to the Chinese capital.

Noodles have been around a very long time, well before the ubiquitous instant noodle graced our supermarket shelves. In 2005, archaeologists dug up the remains of neolithic noodles which were 4,000 years old.

Today's "lao" noodles were thankfully not as old as these!

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Simply Not Cricket

I work for an Australian university that is establishing itself here in Singapore and this week is D Day (or more precisely "O" Week) when our first students arrive for their orientation.

Quite naturally we retain a certain 'Ozzie' flavour in our programmes and approach to education so it came as no surprise to see that a cricket match was scheduled as part of the week long activities. An invitation has been issued to any staff member who understands terms such "square leg" and "googly" to step forward and join the team.

Not surprisingly most of my Singaporean colleagues seem somewhat bemused by the cricket jargon and Australian fixation for this game.

This year I shall not be taking up the invitation to participate but shall cheer from the sidelines. There is a reason for this - my last cricket outing forty years ago ended in somewhat humiliating circumstances.

I was a fifth former at a New Zealand boarding school at the time and a good rugby player although only adequate at cricket. I came from a cricketing family and my father had been a provincial captain, so a I recall that in my infancy our family often travelled to cricket matches to watch my father's team compete. Very pleasurable memories they were to as the journey home often meant fish and chips wrapped in newspaper was the evening fare.

By the fifth form I had managed to wheedle myself into the Fourth Eleven. To celebrate this elevation my father bought me a pair of white leather cricket boots. Nowadays cricketers wear much lighter footwear but in the '60's heavy white, leather lace-ups where all the fashion and they had small metal sprigs in the sole for grip.

One had to install the sprigs oneself and I was given implicit instruction on where to place them and the need to hammer them firmly home. I spent considerable time positioning the sprigs and considerably less time hammering them in.

Came the day of the match on the Gully ground and I was ordered to bat in the middle order, such was the confidence of my team mates in my abilities. There were no artificial pitches in those days and the wicket was overlayed with mats made out of woven jute to protect the grass underneath.

My moment arrived with our team struggling to meet the opposition's first inning total and the need for a 'solid knock' from the middle order. I strode purposely to the crease, surveyed the surrounding fielding position and faced the first ball.

To my surprise, the opposing team's bowler was a worse player than I. His first ball was so slow that it allowed me to connect with it and hit it to the boundary - a most respectable 'four' was recorded and my team mates sat up and took notice. It would be stretching the truth to say that they were awe struck, but as they had never seen me score in this fashion before it was no doubt somewhat of a novelty.

Play continued with the odd darting run between the wickets and several other boundaries. I actually started to enjoy myself and was brimming with confidence as I reached a score of twenty six.

Could this be the start of a century partnership? Alas it was not to be.

The very next ball was delicately nudged past the slip fielders requiring a quick single between the wickets. It was at this moment that my ill-hammered sprigs ruined my ambition. Down the wicket I sprinted, bat in glove. Half way to my destination a loose sprig went through the weave of the jute, bringing me to an immediate halt. Such was my momentum that I pitched forward, midway down the wicket . Try as I might, I could not extract my boot from the jute and was run out.

Five minutes later after I had unlaced the boot and the groundsman had been called to extract it from the wicket, I limped off a cricket pitch for the last time, to the accompanying cat calls and hoots of laughter from friend and foe alike.

So this coming week I shall be watching from the sidelines and admiring the skills of my Indian colleagues as they and I enjoy the crack of ball on willow.

That is of course if it doesn't rain.