Monday, April 25, 2005

New York City - the Third Day

I originally wrote the outline for the following on Tuesday, 12 April while sitting somewhere in a shop somewhere in Chinatown, NYC.


It's been 3 days into my NYC sojourn. Here's a recap of the activites of the last 3 days.

Sunday, the very first day I was in NYC. (Actually I arrived on Saturday, but I did not go anywhere as it was already late when I got there). The big highlight of Sunday was watching the musical Rent. It was fabulous! The story concerning memorable characters such as Mark, Roger, Mimi and Angel touched me as it was very raw. For pop musicals (aren't they all?), Rent is the way to go. It had a live band on stage, a lot of fun, laughter and tears. It was touching when Angel passed away, and the ensemble's rendition of 'Seasons of Love' was very moving. Also, Frenchie Davis (that American idol contestant, remember? Probably not) had a small role in this musical, though her presence on stage was huge. Can't miss her - she's the fat lady with the small head.

The other major thing I did on Sunday was to board the Circle Line ferry and toured Manhattan by boat. If you ever go, do take the 3 hour tour that takes you round the island - viewing Manhattan from the sea affords you a different view of the city. For one thing, the buildings don't seem to overshadow you. I snapped away on my Nikon like a Japanese tourist on drugs. It was sights galore - Gawd, I was so enamoured with the bridges that I took so many of bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge and I'm sure I'll be able to name the other bridges if I had listened more carefully to the commentary (did I mention there's one?).

Miss Liberty herself

The Brooklyn Bridge

Some nondescript foot bridge or other, me going all National Geographic as you can see

I needed to get a picture of myself, and used this guy's sunglasses to help

Monday's highlight has to be standing on the top of the Empire State Building (ESB) freezing my butt off. It did not help that my lips were quite badly chapped when I went up. Made it worse with the wind blowing into my face - sometimes, I felt like the my ears had fallen off coz I couldn't feel them.

The sights from the top of the ESB were spectacular, especially when sunset came about. Seeing the sun setting in the horizon was magnificent - the setting sun cast a pale yellow light on the city, which slowly becomes orange, then shades of green, purple and blue can be made out. Finally, it all fades to black, and the city lights come alive. The city literally glows at night.

Sunset at the ESB. Gawd, I can't get the exposure right.

I must say that, though the sights are good, the ESB experience was not quite the Sleepless in Seattle scene I pictured (then again, I did not go up at midnight, which you can if you're really sleepless). The folks there had this really stupid queueing system. When you enter the area where you buy tickets, they have ropes which mark out how the queue is meant to form. I had to zigzag four, five times along the queueing route before getting to the counter to buy my tickets. Then, there is another queue to enter the lift - another zigzagging experience across a much larger room. This queue leads past a particular advertisment in another room before zigzagging back into the main larger room - ESB staff explained that they are contractually bound to show all visitors that particular advertisment (not going to name the advertiser, stupid as it is).

Then, you enter the lift, and exit at a floor that is 4-5 stories below the actual observation deck. Here, you're obliged to take a picture. I stood in front of some mock-up of the ESB and had my picture snapped. Then I was hassled to buy a commentary set (one of those running commentary stuff you stick in your ear and it says stuff at certain locations). All these, I had to endure, before being let up to the actual observation deck. Well, if you do go, try to have a patient attitude to all this - you're a tourist after all, and tourist traps are like that.

Tourist at the ESB.

I couldn't really understand that compulsory picture though - it happened at the Circle Line too. It just smacks of so much tourism to me to have my picture snapped next to something which is not even the real thing (same with the Circle Line - who wants their picture to be taken with the Circle Line sign at the entrance??).

In other Monday experiences, I visited the American Museum of Natural History. If you go there, skip all the other floors and head directly to the 3rd floor where the dinosaur bones are. One doesn't really need to see exhibits of ape men doing ape things, and so much stuffed animals. The dinosaur bones rule! Check out some of those I've taken in my Flickr album.

There were bones of mammoths...


the T-rex...

pteryldactyls, stegosaurus, velociraptors etc. Went goggled eyed just seeing the bones and finding out what experts deduce from just studying bone structures alone. Also worth having a look in the natural museum are the Big Bang exhibits (very educational in terms of giving us perspective on how small we are), and the huge fake whale in the oceanography section of the museum.

Then, there is Today, Tuesday. I'm now in a dinghy noodle place in Chinatown, having eaten my wanton mee. Seriously, there should really be somebody who starts a noodle place franchise. The noodles in this shop are fantastic - I can see how a noodle place franchise can become something like the next Ya Kun (ok, it's a stretch). Why not brand noodles? Make it fun to eat noodles? A lifestyle option, like Starbucks? (Me now: typing this now, I suddenly recall that its not a new idea anymore - recall Nooch).

Whacking a ball with your hand against a wall. I'm told this was a sport in the Olympics yonks ago.

The most interesting part of Chinatown thus far - Sedgewick Park. It's like a veritable community centre, except that the place is open air and has trees. There were old couples dancing to some music (no, they aren't into line dancing, its more of the cha cha variety). There were teenagers playing a form of game which I can only describe as handball crossed with squash. Also, there were old geezers playing chess and gambling, loudly yabbering away with each other. Funny how the Chinese community in NYC seem to retain so much of their Chineseness there. It seems that the further a community is from its cultural roots, the more likely its origins play an important role in life.

Dancing in Sedgewick Park. Nice.

I have had a lot of fun thus far, but I'm worried for Grace. I miss her very much - talking to her on the phone today just reminds me how much I miss her voice and her comforting tone. It'll be another few days before I head home though... I'm starting to feel some homesickness setting in.

New York City - the First Day

I originally wrote the backbone for the following in a notebook on the 10th of April.


If there's one thing you can count on, it's Starbucks. It is the same everywhere, and the standard of the drinks are (more or less) consistent. Consider, as an example, my favourite drink - the mocha. No matter which Starbucks I head to, it is the same frothy mix, with just the right dash of mocha, no cream (I do without whip cream), and that oh-so-sweet aroma.

In any case, Starbucks is about the only thing I have gotten right about my trip to NYC so far. So what is so wrong with my trip then?

Well, I have NO friends here!

But well, it's not all doom and gloom. Grace reminded me that Jesus is everywhere - he sure is, he made me feel right at home in a place away from home. Also, having no one to rely on here does force one to speak up and be counted.

The thing I do miss though is the 'talking' (I can't believe I said that). It is hard being by yourself, and having no one familiar to talk to. Sure, it beats having to talk even when you don't want to (sometimes you're just expected to), but one does sure miss decent conversations. For example, if Grace were around, I will be asking her where we would go. She will be asking me where I think we should go, and I will say 'I don't know, what do you think?'. We never really decide - we push responsibility back and forth until one capitulates (me).

Another thing about me being in NYC - I have too much time on my hands. I'm thinking of just grabbing a book and reading to my heart's content, but that isn't a good way to while away the time, isn't it? (I mean, I'm in NYC for goodness' sake!) Oh, but that is so me - when I'm all alone by myself, I just want to do things I love - reading being one.

In other news, everything I eat here in the Big Apple is BIGGER (see, even NYC's moniker is BIG). I had a sandwich for breakfast and it came in 2 parts - I was burping after chomping down one portion and had some difficulty eating the rest of it. I hate to think what I'm going to eat for dinner. Probably McDonalds. Also, Starbucks doesn't exactly have very cheap breakfast - I need to find someplace cheaper to chow breakfast.

Hmm, I can see Columbia University from here. Where I'm staying is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is a kind of yuppie neighborhood to the west of Central Park. Occupying much of the space here is Columbia Uni. I had a short walk through the campus earlier and it felt refreshing to see that they're very much like NUS back home (Ok, not so much, but they do have similarities). Apparently, it was election time and there were posters everywhere advertising folks who want to get elected into some council or other. Interesting - back home, we also photostat our ads and put cheesy lines such as 'Elect the Supremes, the folks who convince administration to clear garbage like this every weekend'.

Oh, time to go. The Big Apple awaits.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Accounting Entry

Had a short 10 min break and I decided to pop into the room to blog this one. We're being taught value creation or something like that, and the very first lesson goes into financial accounting principles. Its the boring accounting stuff all over again, except that I cannot ever figure out why certain transactions affect certain accounts.

It all boils down to rules for me - accounting, being such a stifling subject, needs a lot of rules to keep it consistent and understandable by all. So, institutions such as the certified accounting board (or whatever, I can't remember) impose conditions on how accounts are managed and noted.

Anyway, I'm getting out of point. It was interesting sitting through the session anyhow - the partner was engaging, the questions asked were thought provoking, and some folks are just so plain stupid they make the rest of us laugh. Hopefully, it'll get better after the break.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Baggage Handling Hell

I originally wrote this post in long hand while sipping my mocha in that godforsaken airport in Minneapolis/St. Paul (Minneapolis and St. Paul are 'twin' cities - two nearby cities that grew so big they became one city). I meant to find an internet cafe to write this but there isn't one -there's wireless access though (talk about taking two steps forward, and one step back).


My entry point into the United States was Minneapolis. The definition for entry point (this is my word for it anyway) is the place where you first enter into the country of the United States of America. Its the port of disembarkation, the point at which your plane touches down (or, in cases of sea voyages, ship reaches port). The entry point is the place where you go through the most irritating rite of customs any government authority can care to impose on you.

All right, there's the finger printing, entirely electronic without any ink-stained digits involved. There's the camera taking you picture (kawaii-deska!). And the guy with the probing questions about where you're going, why, what you're doing etc. Oh by the way, if you're a Singaporean visiting the US, fill in the GREEN visa waiver form! Don't take the white form (which looks suspiciously similar) cos that's for aliens! Not you! You're not an alien!

That's the easy part anyhow. The tough bit was when I had to collect my bag at the baggage claim area. Unfortunately for me, because of the debacle over the green form (remember, GREEN form), I was held far back in the queue. About 4 planes arrived around the same time I touched down, which meant a massive number of people crowding the customs clearance and baggage claim area.

The baggage claim area was where my troubles started. First of all, there were only two carousels. There were no signs to indicate which carousel carried bags out from which flight - according to the airport's baggage handlers, the bags came out of BOTH carousels, whichever plane you were taking.

I had difficulty spotting my bag - my bag was big, black, squarish and had no obvious marking. Basically this description fits most of the bags I see sprawled over the entire area and this brings me to my most serious problem - there were bags everywhere. Bags were still doing their merry-g0-round on the carousels (I had to look at both, did about 10 turns each). To add to the confusion, baggage handlers were taking bags OFF the carousels and laying them on the floor. I guess this was to ease the load on the carousels, but this DOES NOT help people like me.

Passengers had to search for bags on both carousels, search for bags sprawled on the floor and scramble to get out of the baggage handling area. Not good. I wished I had done the bright orange tag on my bag, or the funky pink ribbon in the corner thing. None of that, so my task was more arduous than most. Plus, given my semi-blind state (LASIK gave me problems with vision in low light conditions), I spent a frantic hour looking for my one big black bag.

Eventually, I gave up and approached this baggage handler (lets call him Papa Tango - he looks like a kind soul). I told him about my situation, and Papa Tango advised me to try again, or give up and file a baggage claim with the airline (NorthWest - worst ever, don't bother). So I gave the carousels one more pass and headed for the queues that will take me out to the next queueing area (I queued 3 times just to get into the airport proper, those customs b******s).

The guy at the end of the queue, a Homeland security officer greeted me (let's call him Father Abraham, 50s, white beard and hair, don't mess with me looks). He noted my 'no bag' condition, asked why I had no bag, and understanding the situation, marked some gibberish on my customs declaration form (make sure you get this one filled too!), asked me to go to the '2nd counter' with a dismissive wave in a generally 'there' direction. I didn't know where 'there' was, and decided to go check the baggage area ONE more time.

Oh Thank God my prayers were answered. I found my bag. Everything was intact (i.e. lock still there, bag still closed shut). Anyway, I dragged the bag and all over to the queue for Father Abraham to get through again. Got to the front and Father Abraham said didn't-I-tell-you-to-go-counter-two in that irritated tone old hassled men do. Well, I had to confess that I didn't know where he meant. Another dismissive wave, this time in a more descriptive manner at certain grey haired folks (pointed out by Father Abraham as 'grey haired folks', no less).

Okay, cleared grey haired folks and they told me to go back to Father Abraham's queue! Oh goodness gracious (actually, I muttered something along the lines of 'What the F***'). Finally, I cleared Father Abraham's station though I cheated - I picked the parallel queue serviced by Father Abraham's clone (same white hair but more cheerful). Goodbye to the customs folks!

Oh, that's not the end of it. I was greeted by another queue, this time for the actual X-ray scans and metal detectors. For most, this is the most difficult part for they have to remove items from their clothes, take off their shoes and wait in line for folks to clear the station. I found that to be easy compared to what I had to witness - to get our bags onto our connecting flights, the bags had to be checked into another 'baggage handling area', albeit one that looks more like those check-in counters in the airport.

The worst part was that the baggage handlers in this area told people who are queueing to 'just leave your bags here'. People were leaving their bags there, while folks further back in the queue were wondering why they were doing so. So the baggage handlers have to explain again when folks from behind come up... the cycle repeats itself.

In any case, I was pissed. Why make me go through the trouble of finding my bag, not bothering to even look into it (for bombs, incendiary devices, terrorist materials), and then making me just 'leave the bag here'? The whole exercise of looking for bag was pointless to begin with if all it ended up was back into another airplane. Customs rules HAVE to change - this is plainly ridiculous. A Californian native told me that Minneapolis airport is to blame - no other airport subjected people to this treatment.

So, left my bag there, with curses, and proceeded to do the X-ray and metal detector thing. With that cleared, I went on to run to catch my connecting flight (took almost 1.5 hrs to clear customs, 3 queues, and lots of frustration).

The connecting flight was cancelled - Oh Misery... what a card you dealt today.

Our lives are linked in intricate ways

I've never fully explained the story of how I ended up going to school. it reminds me that our networks are an important part of our lives - both at work and personally. Although I should be doing more about expanding my network, I... hmm, that's another story.

In any case, if I were to trace this back to its source, it really started during my reservist in February. Sometime during my reservist in Feb, my reservist unit's office called me in to issue me an SAF100 (for the uninitiated, namely you, this is one of those official looking letters sealed up, with an order to appear at so-and-so time in so-and-so attire to do so-and-so). The SAF100 stated that I was to show up for a medical check up (which I previously ignored), for purposes of evaluating my PES status (takes too long to explain, so I won't).

Fast forward to last Thursday, our fateful 24 March, the day of so called medical appointment. I was prepped and ready to go, when sometime that morning, a call came from the medical centre to say that the Medical Officers were not going to be around in the afternoon. Thus, no more check up (those idiots - making their long weekend longer was the real reason). In any case, I gave the clerk on the end of the line a mouthful, decided I shall stay in office, and promptly hung around.

The course of our fateful day then took an interesting turn. AY msned me to go for lunch with him, the usual thing when he has no other company (I'm the lunch buddy of most convenient resort, in most instances, for AY). We went to that beef kway teow place along Purvis Street, and happily lapped up the kway teow. Fred called AY about lunch near when we were done and, well, AY went to order for Fred (and friend; not important to story). We waited for Fred.

So Fred (and friend not important to story) came and we proceeded to sit there and watch 2 said lunch companions eat. Usual banter ensued. With Fred, the talk can be quite risque and crude, and so it was with that day's lunch. We adjourned to Killeney Kopitiam for tea upon me and AY's insistence. It was here that 2 things were revealed:

  • I moaned to Fred I was unassigned
  • Fred moaned to me that he could not go for school cos of the project he's in

Well, what great timing. I agreed to take his school (if possible), and Fred agreed to find out if... erm, its possible. The process was kick-started, I did my part, Fred did his, and today I'm in Chicago freezing my butt off (oh thanks Fred).

This was all because there was no need to go for that medical check up. See, Mitch Albion did make a good point in his book "5 People you meet in Heaven" (I'll lend you the book if you ask). In it, there was a lesson about how our lives are all interlinked - no man is an island. Our actions and decisions have implications far beyond what we can comprehend. So, I urge you, take the time to ponder some of the more difficult decisions you make - they can have far reaching consequences.