Seven is not enough!

27 11 2011

When I read the news that they had replaced the Seven Wonders of the world with a new list, like most of you, I was first curious to see what they had selected and eager to check how many of those Wonders I had seen or I should place on my Bucket list – sort as a checklist of things we can notch on our life belt.  As I read through the new list : http://www.new7wonders.com , I started to feel melancholic  at the thought that the first 7 ones were being replaced.  That’s when I started to wonder: Is Seven Enough?

Why do we have the urge to replace and dispose of existing things when we want to add new ones on the list?

When we look at how the world turns in turmoil – or when we look at all the horrors and pains people suffer through in countless parts of the planet- when we look at the hardship of women in Afghanistan – the sex trade of children in Cambodia – the physical abuse that cowards inflict on others – Don’t we need at least a 100 Wonders to make-up for the daily horrors?

How many Wonders do we need to vote on the list in order to appease the dehumanization of a society that let a 2 year old toddler dying on the streets of China? How many Wonders shall we claim in the news to make us forget that a woman and her accomplices in the USA kept mentally ill people in an inhumane basement cell to collect their social disability check (an additional 50 people are missing). In both these cases, I wished for them to die; the poor little girl to be spared from a life of vegetative state and the Philadelphia woman because not only does she deserve to die, but she has lost forever the right to live in any world.

So why keep it at only Seven Wonders when today’s world beats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year with hardship.  Give us at least one Wonder per day to be marveled about in order to counterbalance the daily bad news.

So allow me to make my first contribution and I challenge you all to add your grain of salt at the end of this post.  So here are my 7 Wonders to add to the new Seven and the old 7 which makes a total of 21. Tomorrow, we will start the day with a new total of 21 wonders to look forward to, the equivalent of three weeks done and 49 other to fill-up.

There are no hierarchic preferences in my list below:

1. True Friendship

Friendship comes in all shapes and forms

What is more wonderful than having true friends for decades and although you don’t see them often, sometimes with gaps of years, you start your encounter as if we had talked yesterday.  I am fortunate to have several of these true friends, including my family, the ones I would never let go of – that are not judgmental – or try to play the guilt trip – or have sentiments of jealousy, envy or worst, opportunistic fake friends.  The true ones are simply pure hearted friends that don’t demand much, but give so much in return.  I believe they would say the same of me.

When I saw my friend Diane in Bali after 6 years,we sat at the restaurant and just lived the moments for 2 days – when I hopped on a plane to Côte d’Azur (from a business trip in Belgium, just in case you wonder) two weeks ago to see my dear friends Richard and Christiane, we again simply started where we had left off 6 years ago and the world seemed magical.  When my longest standing friend of 32 years, Sue, came to Singapore last summer, we were both ’30’ again and simply continued our wonderful journey together as if time had not altered us in any way.  The same goes when seeing or speaking to Nicole, with whom I never want to hang-up on Skype, and often wonder how I survived so long without speaking to her or seeing her.

The amazing thing is that I keep on adding extraordinary people on this list for the past ten years; Marie-Laure, Pauline, Bob, Jennie, Lorainne, Marjorie, Roger, Suzanne, Nikki, Tanya, Daniela and so many others (terrible to have started a list because I would need to continue for too long to list you all and others would get bored, so please don’t feel insulted if I stop here).  To all of my very good friends that I need multiple hands to count them on, including family, to the extraordinary people I am fortunate to have in my life, your love and friendship is my special Wonder!

2. Flying 

Have we taken for granted the magical Wonder of planes simply because they have been part of our daily life for so long?

-I can’t!

To me, planes or should I say flying is an extraordinary Wonder that allows us not only to explore the world, but to open doors of our lives.  What is more magical than to hop-on and hop-off an airbus to go live a moment with dear friends, to conduct business in any parts of the planet,  to relax on an island beach with your loved ones or discover other Wonders that you capture with your camera hoping to never forget the emotion, that special moment!

What can bring more magic than leaving home after work and be able to have dinner in Thailand or Bali in less than two hours, for less than $200 a ticket?  What is more awesome than looking at your passport, flipping through the 48 pages while reading the different stamps? To me, the sound of that ink stamp that a custom officer robotically applies on a page, clicks open a door of memories, of souvenirs.  How cool is the thought that I can hop on a plane and have breakfast in Sydney before going to work! Yes, to me, walking in a plane is opening a door to life and for that reason, it makes the list!

3. The Sea!

We often name land or monuments as Wonders, but what about the sea?  If the Amazon forest has made it to the top of the new 7 Wonders’ list, the sea shall have a well deserved place on my list.  The oceans and the seas are home of some of the most majestic creatures small and big – are the reasons we exist and nurture life.  The sea is a Wonder to look at from a shore – helps us see far and dream while showering us with unimaginable powers and beauties. It is a playground, a source of inspiration and pleasure, both above and under.

Yet it is so powerful and unpredictable that at any given moment it can furiously remind you that you cannot dominate it or master it.  The sea is the essence of life and is one of the rare elements that can proudly say to have it all in one.  For that and more, it makes the list.

4. The Canadian Rocky Mountains

Unknown source imageYou all know by now that I have travelled the world and hopefully will continue to do so.  I have seen a lot of natural Wonders and still remain in ecstasy before a small flower, but when I think of the ultimate beauty, the one that made me feel the most humble in life, I think of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.  I have been to the Rockies in numerous occasions, and each time I experienced an overwhelming feeling of Grand Beauty and humility at once.  Every time I see the Rocky Mountains I think: There ought to be a God or a superior being to have thought of such Wonder.

The imposing, yet refined and majestic beauty of the Rockies are only matched by its capacity to savagely make you regret you tried to conquer it, to dare it and to ignore the warning signs.  The Canadian Rockies bear enough unexpected marvels and sights to cure any negative thoughts or sorrows in someone’s soul or to make adventurous adrenaline junkies feel content.  Yet, just like the sea, never forget that it can and will whip you into misery if you dare to confront it unaware of its God like powers.  For its extreme and unparalleled beauty and power, the Canadian Rockies have been in my top Wonders of the world for decades and yes, I did go to Queenstown in New-Zealand, had a peak at the Himalayan in Nepal and went a few times in the Alps.

5. Courage

Photo from Geoff Collins email (no source mentioned)

I know that for most of you, the disastereous floods in Thailand are one of the news you glimpse at in the morning or at night, but for my friends and colleagues in Thailand, there is no escape.  Yet, the extraordinary courage and positivism of the Thai people is an amazing Wonder on its own.

-I will use my brain to find ways to survive this, said my friend Ning in Bangkok, this is something I have never used my brain for so it should be interesting and I will learn from it. Another colleague said: The water has invaded the first floor of my house, but we move everything to the second floor so we should be OK.  

Let me stop you for a moment.  The water under which the Thai people have been flooded for over 6 weeks now is the awfully dirty waters of  the Chow Praya river, mixed with the sewage of the city, including all chemicals and garbage that cut loose.  Rats, poisonous snakes, crocodiles and other sort of animals are either climbing for survivals or escaping their surroundings to establish their new water kingdom.  Disease, fungal infections, rotting walls and furniture is facing, with devastation, the Thai people as they will need to live for months in unthinkable conditions while reconstructing their lives.

Yet, their creativity and beautiful smile lifts them up every day to try to conquer the elements – build bridges and sidewalks out of shopping carts – sitting in an internet cafe with water to the waist to communicate with their loved ones – walking out of their house wondering how they will go through the day, but never forgetting to make an offering to Bhudda.  It is only the beginning of their hell, because when the water will retrieve, in a month’s time, the magnitude of the horror will be exposed. I already know that Thai people will all join forces courageously to make life as normal as it can possibly be. They will have lost their cars and most possessions, they will try to fight diseases and outbreaks, they will fight to restore their life and go to work, but will keep their legendary smile.

By now, I will remind you that you already forgot the courageous Japanese people who are currently, after 9 months, still cleaning up the damage of the earthquake and Tsunami in order to perhaps one day find life normal again.  Life is also not back to normal for many in Christchurch. Because we forget so easily how much courage it takes to help others in distress, survive and rebuild our lives after such devastating traumas, I place courage as one of my seven Wonders!

6.  New Zealand

New-Zealand is a WonderYes, I did say that the Canadian Rockies beat the mountains of Queenstown, but New-Zealand as a whole is an extraordinary natural Wonder.  New-Zealand is the only place Pierre and I went and said: This is it, let’s buy a house and live here forever!   This country has so much to offer, so much visual beauties and natural untouched resource, the waters are so pure, the sky so blue and the landscape so diverse, that exploring these islands is a heavenly experience.

The only reason why we did not buy a house and moved there is because of my Wonder number 1: Friendship and family!  New Zealand is one of the farthest places to reach from America and is pretty much remote from everything on the planet, so that would mean to cut too many ties, which we are not ready to do.  Yet, it does not mean that it can’t make the list of my personal Seven Wonders.

7. Angkor and the Cambodian people

I do not know of a person who went to Cambodia and  visited Angkor and did not say: It was extraordinary, yet after two days were “templed out”, because there is so much to see!  I have never met someone who spent time in Cambodia and did not feel transformed from it, sort of a spell that invades your soul and stays engraved in your memory. I’ve never met a human who did not get moved by the eyes of the Cambodian children who smile at you with kindness and sadness, often because they already have seen more than they should. I have never talked to travelers who visited Cambodia without them saying that they have to return.  For this great civilization that once existed and for the unearthy kindness of the divested young people of the country, you derserve a place of honour in my list.

I will not say much more about Cambodia, I want you to go and experience it!

Now go ahead, it is your turn, add one or two Wonders to the world at the end of this post. Actually add more than one because today I learned that an egg farm called Sparboe in the USA lost MacDonald as a client due to the undercover report of a group of animal activists. The cruelty that  was inflicted to the chicks for fun and disregard is unspeakable.  Coming from a USA based farm is even more of a shame – they cannot blame lack of education or ignorance or evolution, we can only blame sick human behavior.  They deserve to be shut-down for ever.

Thanking you in advance for adding a Wonder for this one!

For the good news:  My Fuji Xerox Twins Campaign won a Global Pearl Award in New-York on the 7th of November.  You can see the short 3 minute video at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ7JN2reAsg  





Cone Island!

21 08 2011

On the very first day of July, Pierre and I landed on Cone Island for a two-week vacation. Two intense weeks pre-filled with plans of seeing friends and families, with ambitions of making country-side escapes, while hopping in stores with a long shopping lists of things we wanted to bring back, including: Maple Syrup!

For those of you who think that I misspelled the famous New-York Coney Island in the title of this blog, think again, because I really meant Cone Island in Quebec, Canada. Some of you may also know it as Montreal!

Anywhere our obligations or errands were taking us, anywhere we had to reach a destination in Montreal, the journey was endless. Every single day that we ventured in the city, we had to scratch-off the agenda the things we had NOT accomplished , rather than the ones we had planned to do, simply because of the traffic jams of Montreal.

Stuck in the middle of concrete hell, we often wondered if we would survive the journey. Stuck between grey cement structures with nets installed to catch the falling concrete chunks of debris, we wondered if this would be the day we die. Prisoners of the grey tone of the rotting autoroutes and bridges of Montreal, we wondered how to keep our spirits up. Our lives seemed to be a sad cement-grey, except for the cone colour of the day (every day): bright orange, often covered with white stripes or sometimes white tips, but always with one thing in common: No workers in sight.

Welcome to Cone Island.

Welcome to Cone Island! photo: Time Striping, inc.

Yes, tens of thousands of orange cones have been spread across the city of Montreal and all major routes have been either reduced to one lane, closed, blocked, detoured or ripped open. Most cones are placed to alight the traffic of the Turcotte-Yard Interchange that can no longer handle its own weight, let alone too many cars on it, or to alight the Champlain Bridge that is either splitting, stressing or simply losing parts of its structure, depending on the day. Three times during our holiday, the bridge had to be closed due to its dangerous state. As for the Mercier bridge, if you wish to live a long life, let’s say you should avoid taking it, but if you really must cross this bridge, arm yourself with patience and bring a life preserver, just in case!

Upon our return to Singapore, we had barely touched ground when we learned that a 40-50 meter piece of concrete from the Ville-Marie tunnel (the main tunnel of downtown Montreal) had crumbled on the expressway, luckily avoiding the worst catastrophe: killing people.

I will say it loud and clear, MONTREAL SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF ITS CONDITION AND INFRASTRUCTURE! What used to be a great place to live, has become a third world city and actually the term “third world” is light because at least, developing countries are trying hard to get out of their situation, while Montreal seems to be struck by the “Boiling Frog Syndrome”! When a frog is thrown in hot water, it will jump out to survive, but if you place a frog in cold water and slowly bring the water to boil, the frog will adjust so much to its environment that it will stay in the boiling water until death occurs. I have never done the test myself as I am against animal cruelty, but it is a fact that scientists have tested.

Please spare me the excuses that Montreal’s climate is responsible for the poor conditions of the road and the deterioration of the infrastructure (although it plays a role in making it age a bit faster). The true recipe behind the desolation of Montreal is a combination of negligence with poor quality standards and a zest of political incompetence, all marinated in a pool that smells disguised corruption.

Sorry Montreal, but many other countries have the same weather as you and their roads are not in this condition. Many other cities have the same population and age as you and their infrastructure is not falling on the head of its people. Yes, I admit that there are freak accidents everywhere in the world, but please Mr. PM Charest and Mr. Mayor Tremblay, simply admit that you and your management are a shame to the rest of the world. You and your management are stripping Montreal of its true essence: Its pride! You and your management are making me ashamed of my beloved city.

I use to always say to people wanting to visit Canada that they must go to Montreal if they want to see the best city, but now I stay silent or simply say: Yes, Canada has some beautiful parts and Vancouver is really nice.

Mr. Mayor and Mr. Prime Minister, was it also necessary to attack all roads at once? The Jean Lesage highway – Ville-Marie tunnel – the HW 720 and more and more, and yes of course, all the federal bridges too. Beautiful planning, you should be proud! Don’t your guys call each other or is it that you waited so long to act that it all crumbled at once? You truly deserve a medal of incompetence.

Furthermore, what planet do you live on Mister Politicians, where you have 4 months of summer to repair the infrastructures and you let the unionized road workers take their holiday in July. Truly brilliant! By the way, the two-week vacation period called “the construction holiday” is supposed to be the last two weeks of July, but we were there from the 1st to the 18 of July and not once, I repeat not once, I saw a worker anywhere in the city. My blood boiled even more when people would excuse the situation by saying: but it is normal, it is July and everyone is taking time off!  OK, here comes the boiling frog syndrome again! Some of you actually find this normal!!!!   When I relay this information to the people I work with or my friends in Asia, they are shocked. They systematically say: But why are they doing this? Why do they allow such things? Can’t they just fix this? Well… I guess not!

Yes, ladies and gentleman, it is almost a non-hidden fact that the Unions, the Organized Crime and the Politicians of Quebec have succeeded to destroy what used to be a great city and a great place to live. Perhaps it takes frogs like us who jumped out of the boiling water a while ago to see the danger and to try to warn the others. I can only tell people that the water is hot and slowly killing them, but I am sometimes afraid that Montrealers have perhaps abandoned the idea of taking a stand and are getting used to the hot waters sinking Cone Island.

My sister jokes that a brother or a cousin of Mayor Tremblay has a cone factory or a cone distribution company. Thank God Quebecers have a good sense of humor. All I can say is that while someone is paralysing an entire city with orange cones, a 2 kilometer -8 lane section of the East Coast Park highway in Singapore was moved over night, without disturbing the traffic. Yes, it is a true story: One morning we woke up and the autoroute had been moved, paved, repainted with white lines and little tree bushes had already been planted. Overnight, an 8-lane highway was moved to a new path, so is it so crazy to think that you can properly fix something in Montreal over a 4 month period?

Meanwhile our good friends Fernand and Louise opened their doors to their little heaven in the Eastern Townships where we could gladly resource ourselves, breathe deep, see clearly before the next round of cones would start. Thank you guys, it was an escape that kept our sanity.

Did you know Mr. Tremblay that Malaysia (supposedly a developing country) has impeccable roads, highways and cute manicured flowers and trees for hundreds, even thousands of kilometers. And you know what, they get a monsoon season every year that washes off a lot of land! I wonder how they do it? Would you like to give them a call? Try texting them instead, you might disturb them.

Riviere du Gouffre, Baie-Saint_paul. Photo: Camping du Gouffre

Exasperated by the city, we decided to escape to Baie Saint-Paul, bringing along beautiful daughter Virginie and her handsome boyfriend David. After hours of driving with cones and blocked lanes, we arrived in this stunning part of Quebec that was holding the promise of washing off all the cone images. After a succulent “terroir” dinner with my friend Diane, who has found a peaceful haven with a view to die for on the hills of Baie St-Paul, the bad memories began to fade away and beauties slowly grew inside our souls.

The morning after we hopped in yellow and sky blue kayaks to embrace the natural curves of the Gouffre River. The luxuriant greens and deserted shores of the river combined with its cool water completed the mission of replacing the images in our mind, while the walls of lushes forests and the singing birds protected us from the noise of the towns and highways.

After 3.5 hours of pure nature, Pierre pointed out something strange that we could not yet make sense of due to the distance. But the closer we got and the more we could recognize this foreign object polluting the right bank of the beach. The four of us looked at each other with horror and screamed: OH NO! …AN ORANGE CONE!!!

I rest my case.

Helene

P.S: Some of you may be offended and think that I am not patriotic, but on the contrary, I love Montreal and it makes me sad to see it crumble. I deeply and strongly believe that being patriotic does not mean that you have to accept mediocrity. Au contraire!

So send emails – tweet – Facebook or write letters to your MP’s, your city councils, the mayor or make noise, you might wake-up someone. My contribution is my blog.





The Five Year Itch!

19 06 2011

In a few days will be the time that marks the 4 year milestone of my journey in Asia. When I think back to that day, I close my eyes and try to feel the moment again – the moment when I sat in the Air Canada lounge and a good-looking stranger came to ask me if he could invite me for dinner upon my return of what he thought was a business trip – I smiled and said with the pale shadow of the voice I had left:

If you are able to wait two years, maybe!

Just saying it gave me an adrenaline rush with little twinkle of excitement in my stomach: For a moment my mind was trying to take a peek at an untamed part of my life that I was eager to start.

Another flash back again and I see myself in my one way business class seat looking at the passenger next to me who asked:

-Where are you flying to this morning Miss?

I am going to the other side of the world, in Singapore, to start a new chapter of my life!

When speaking to me I could see he was intrigued and distracted by the large bandage with surgical tape that was showing stains of blood on my neck. After all, only 5 days before I had gone through surgery to remove a tumor of the parathyroids, and since the beast was wrapped around the vocal cord nerve, I had lost my voice. But nothing could stop me from taking that plane, nothing could stop me because I was convinced that this new chapter of my life had already been written for me.

Sipping life five years at a time

Indeed it had been written for me… or should I say by me! For the past 20 years, I do a five-year assessment of the shape my life has taken, and then I set new goals and craft my dreams for the next five. In december 2006, during my 6 day retreat isolated in a spa in Biarritz – France, I have written the life chapter that I am about to wrap-up. Not that it means I am leaving Asia, because I am not, but rather that it is time for me to scratch the surface of my new Five year Itch!

But let’s look back to see if my life has unfolded as written. After breaking the seal of the envelope that had been put to rest for five years, I can safely say that the story was mine: I read this message to myself dated from December 18, 2006: I had decided to have an international career, preferably in Asia and Australia because not only it was an unknown world to me, but it was going to be the ruling world of the future, so I must get to know it. I wanted to understand and live the Asian culture – I had hoped that the man who meets my standards of integrity and values of life would cross my path and I had promised myself to not settle for less – I wished to live in a warm climate, away from the harsh winters of Montreal – I had imagined rebuilding my career and re-establishing my credibility in a world that did not know me, I pictured to be invited to deliver conferences everywhere in Asia, to explore my new passion for writing, perhaps even write a book! In my inspirational letter of 2006, I had listed the countries I would visit, the decor that surrounded me and I pictured myself sitting on a long chair somewhere, on a sunny day, five years later, assessing my plan.

Always add a bit of magic to life

I can say that my life unfolded as planned, almost to the T, and sometimes with magic. Thanks to intense therapy, I got a voice back after 3 months of my arrival (not the same but way good enough) – I am now married to a wonderful man who joined my path after 4 months of my arrival here – I have done countless trips in at least 15 countries and am constantly answering requests for conferences in Asia and sometimes Europe. And today, I am sitting in a long chair next to the beautiful swimming pool of our condominium complex in Singapore and I am writing my story to you, not in a book, but in a blog.

I can also say with certainty that it is because I do this five-year exercise that I knew right away – four and a half years ago – that the job opportunity in Singapore (which came to me out of the blue 3 months after my Biarritz trip) was indeed for me. It was written… not in the sky, but in my plan! Engraved down deep it my subconscious and in my sealed envelope.

the swimming pool at our condo 🙂

What I did not know was the impact that my decision would have on other people. For the past 4 years, I received several comments – emails and messages from people who decided to make bold steps in their lives and wished to let me know that their decisions were inspired by me. Some started to write their own story after reading my blog, others took a sabbatical, changed work, opened their horizons to new life opportunities, decided to finally make the trip of their dream. Lately, following the publication of an article in the Athabasca University Magazine about my 5 year story, complete strangers wrote to me telling me that they are touched or inspired – that they now want to do something similar, shaping the recipe of their lives with their own ingredients. I am touched by these comments and I can honestly say that I feel privileged of the trust I am handed.

Mumbai November 2010

So it is now time to complete my new five-year plan, but this time it is different: It is no longer ME but US, so all plans will no longer be of what I want to do with my life, but rather what we would like to accomplish together, what will be our next chapter. This time I have a co-writer!

Pierre and I wondered how we were going to do this exercise this time around as we are two strong career people with different personalities. So we hopped on a plane to Bali to unwind – dive – rest and… write our plans. We first wrote our own unique letter to ourselves and then compared it to see if we had a common path or if we were going to be faced with very opposite directions and have to make major compromises. To our relief, our letters had all the same essential common elements to carve a healthy future with just the right dose of individuality.

Queenstown New Zealand

I know you think that I will share the plan with you, but I will let you itch for a while, since the purpose of my blog is for you to follow the journey.

Cheers!

Helene





Under the Spell of India

23 04 2011

You have not heard from me for a while due to my intense traveling and work schedule. Since I last wrote a blog, I must have been to more than 12 countries and probably a couple of times, sometimes up to three times in the same ones. I have so much to tell you when I think of all the wonders I have the privilege to see, I have so much to share with you when I think of all the great encounters I get to experience, but this time around, I will let someone else do it for me: I am lending my space to my sister!

When I first step foot in India (last November) I could not believe this country; a vibrant buzz that challenges all your senses at once and that makes you feel so alive. I knew right there and then that this country would have a place of choice in my blog to talk about what is rightfully promoted as “Incredible India”. But then, my sister Claire and her husband Eddy went on a trip to India few months after me. She wrote to me a couple of emails relating her trip and I was touched by her writing, it truly came from the bottom of her heart and described so well the daily life of these wonderful people. So I decided to lend my seat for a moment to my sister Claire, for her to tell you about this fascinating country that is India and not because I have no time to write, but because she did it very well and deserved the stage.

Amongst many others, here’s the email that she wrote at the end of their journey.

Delhi, February 2011

Here we are in this large, modern and spotless Delhi airport, which only opened 8 months ago. Yet, here we are in the business lounge of this impeccably clean airport looking at some of the filthiest carpets we have ever seen in any lounge anywhere. In a nutshell, this is India, a land of endless contrasts. A fitting end to a fascinating voyage.

Delhi was visually a surprise today. Although it contains almost (short of a couple of million) as many inhabitants as Mumbai, it is not condensed like nor as crazy on the roads as Mumbai. Here in Delhi, the roads are in pretty good condition and the city is quite green with trees everywhere and many parks. The fact that it spreads out on all side offers some relief to the centre of the city where the circulation flows fairly well in a semi-organized fashion. However, the road flowing into and out of Delhi is often the subject of huge traffic jams since there is only one main “highway”. Apparently, Delhi has reduced its pollution by 30% in the last decade by converting a large portion of their vehicles to natural gas, quite an impressive result. We were also told that 60% of the population own their own home. It is, of course, the capital city and every step forward begins here.

However, we have also seen the conditions in which the other 40% live in, some in slums spread out in every directions but for the first time since the beginning of our journey, we have seen total hopelessness, people face down on sidewalks, in parks or anywhere they can find a spot. Homelessness is prevalent here and it does get so cold at night in the winter. To think that one can be so unimaginably impoverished that even living in a slum isn’t an option. There are no words.

Children beat drums and do acrobatic dances on street corners all day long hoping that drivers stopped at a red light will be giving them a few rupees. If they are lucky, they will bring back a little bit of money to their family, but they are unlikely to see the benefit for their efforts when they go back to their parents since many exploit their own children as a course of everyday life. Exploitation of children is everywhere and seems well tolerated. A local guide mentioned the sadness of the red light districts in India where children are traded for sex and treated like animals. I can’t even go there in my mind. Not so long ago, these children were kept in cages until the government told the exploiters that they could no longer do that, but this is where any help to these children stopped. Children are exploited at many different levels in many countries on this planet, but the sheer size of the population and the extreme poverty in India contribute to perpetuating these devastating conditions.

As if it was not enough, Delhi is also particularly dangerous for women. Rape is rampant in the city and we were told that no female should set out after dark, tourist or not. Worst however, is that most rapes are never reported because of the stigma attached to it and the insensitivity toward the victims. The family would disown the injured woman as she would be considered to have shamed the family. Most perpetrators never get caught as police does not take these cases seriously and on a rare occasion, when they do find out who did it, he/they will only receive a slap on the wrist. This is what this capital city lacks the most: respect towards women, children…humanity. Again, quite in contrast with Mumbai where men and women enjoy both a certain safety and equality in everyday life, where even poor families seem happy, protecting and caring for each other. Not that Mumbai is perfect, it is in fact a crazy mess, but its inhabitants seem kinder, gentler than in the capital city.

Delhi is more organized but it does not have the kindness of heart that we have come to know in India. We did learn that the majority of illegal immigrants in India are from Bangladesh and it appears that it is impossible for India to control it as they just blend in with the Indian population without particularities.

At the end of this journey, we can say that we are coming home changed in many ways. Grateful for our lives because, of course, our perspective has been one of travellers peeking into India under the very best conditions at the very best time of year, but our hearts have been filled with the kindness and gentleness of the Hindu people. Yet, as we step away back into our lives, our hearts break for the ones who continue to live day in and day out in incomprehensible conditions and for the hopelessness perpetuated by those who have lost their way. It is not clear, to me at least, that India can become this great nation it aspires to be while leaving behind such a large number of its population. India’s willingness to try to implement change is essential but the challenges are great in the face of some of its long-standing traditions and antiquated beliefs.

The little girl dressed in red

As for us, if we had to make the choice between returning to any of the beautiful countries we have visited in Asia or coming back to India, it would be India in a heartbeat because this beautiful little girl dressed in red in the photo on the left, who has to work most of the day at the market in Udaipur to help her family sell dates, exploded into a beautiful smile and sparkling eyes when I looked into her eyes and gently smiled at her. To my amazement, she extended her hand to me and handed me a date wanting nothing in return.

This is the true essence of India.

Claire

P.S: If you wish to get a glimpse of the 20 years of growth in India, see this CNN youtube video
http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/.element/apps/cvp/3.0/swf/cnn_416x234_embed.swf?context=embed_edition&videoId=business/2011/04/13/chiou.bric.india.cnn

Thank you sis for this great review of India and I do share the same thoughts on how India has a way of throwing a spell at you and make you want to go back to her no matter what.

For now, I am taking back my seat, ready to write the next blog!
Helene





Who is Darwin?

13 11 2010

Allow me to tell you!

If you are in your twenties and have not heard of Darwin, let me tell you that he is the father of the evolution theory. If you don’t know what the theory of evolution is, please Google it as I have a blog to write and certainly don’t want it to be an encyclopedia. If you do not know what Google is…you are an extinct species in the theory of evolution.

Darwin once said about Borneo: “one great wild untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself.” And I must say that it is an impressive piece of property. As you may have noticed through my posting, Borneo has become a playground to Pierre and I, the place where we got married, the surrounding seas we often dive in, the adventures we love to plan such as our latest one: An educational and photographic safari in the jungle with our great friends Marjorie and Adam, who came to visit from Canada.

Our resort in Borneo at dusk

Borneo is an eyeful of wonders and creatures that only exist or survive in this 730,000 sq. km of dense jungle forest, or what is left of it. A place that plays an important balancing role for the sustainability of life on this real planet. It is the Amazon of Asia and just like the rest of these magic kingdoms, the Island of Borneo is filled with unusual and unique creatures that you will never get to see unless you plan Borneo on your Bucket List. But if you do put it on your visionary board of things to do in life, please hurry because Borneo is cooking at high speed in your kitchen.

The gigantic island of Borneo belongs to Indonesia for the most part while a very small portion of it belongs to a little tinny Sultanate called Brunei, who’s Sultan is known for his extravagances and who has become rich because of the crude oil found in his minuscule kingdom. Then comes Malaysia who owns (since 1963) 27% of the island, a place that mainland Malays call: East Malaysia. Malaysian Borneo is part of the Federation of Malaysia and is, in land size, way bigger than its mother country. The so-called natural resource and main industry of Malaysia is another type of oil: Palm oil, a vegetable cooking oil that is the frying basis for half of the world and that is also partly used for bio fuel, although the latter one is not in full bloom yet in the consumer market.

When you fly over Malaysia, you see as far as your eyes can reach, palm plantations! Natural forests or jungles are confined in small government defined parks or reserves that are not very big in size. It is the nature of things here and a comprehensible evolution as this kind of oil is the driving force and growth of Malaysia.

But now that the mainland has been developed pretty much to its fullest, the logical step was to develop East Malaysia, so just like the Amazon, the jungle of Borneo is burned to give place to large palm plantations and now the small farmers are turning their land in palm plantations as well. It is again very comprehensible since growing corn or bananas would give them about $500 (USA) per month while a palm plantation will generate 5 to 6 times this amount. For these small families it means food on the table and university for their children, so please park your judgement at the door because I do not believe for a second that any of us would act differently placed in the same situation.

Indonesia, who sees his neighbour growing at a fast pace, is joining force to burn forests in Borneo and Sumatra. For the past 10 days, Singapore had a haze of smoke so dense that we could hardly see the city and has reached a level of pollution that was above the permitted 100 PSI, a level considered as dangerous. In Singapore we knew that the day the wind will change direction, the city will come back to its clean and clear air condition, but unfortunately it does not mean that forests will stop burning in Indonesia.

The Gomantong caves are a must see!

While the indonesian part of Borneo is still very wild with over 30 different tribes and cultures (even some real head hunters that are not hunting you to offer a job), the Malaysian side is already very developed and holds half of the 15 million inhabitants of the Island. As well, the Malaysian Northern part is the host of some of the best wonders of Borneo, such as four of the greatest mountains of South East Asia including the famous Mount Kinabalu and also the breath taking Gomantong Caves in Sabah. I heard that the Mulu and Deer Caves of the Gunung Mulu National Park are the biggest in the world, but I must say that their counterpart in Sabah are very impressive as well. At one point there are not much differences between 100 or 125 meters in height and wether we can fit 35 or 40 jumbo jets in it.
Majorie

Marjorie with her fabulous Tilley hat with Pierre


These caves are between 17 to 40 million years old and just like Mount Kinabalu, they are World Heritage Sites so a big thank you to the Unesco folks here. But as a word of advice, get your pants in your socks while visiting the caves, wear very good closed shoes and make abstraction of all crawling creatures surrounding you… I did it, Marjorie too and so can you, so please don’t let it stop you. Our visit coincided with the yearly harvesting of the Swallows bird nests, a delicacy that Chinese people are willing to pay up to $1000 USA dollars a kilo because it is believed to help keep your youth, soften your skin and of course has some sort of an aphrodisiac effect. To harvest these nests, workers climb up 100 meters in the holes of the cave and without much protection or insurance, they risk their lives to get the precious product. It is in fact the saliva that the Swallow use to glue the nest together that is sought after as it holds the secret magic potion.

Tree

One of the many imposing trees of the Borneo jungle (Pierre and Adam)

We are the lucky ones since the proximity of Borneo from Singapore allows us to explore this wonder every time we can. We had done some great trips in mangrove forests using kayaks, dove the beautiful surroundings of Sipadan island, we had been impressed by the giant bats hanging by the hundreds from trees in Tawau, at first thinking that they were giant dark coconuts until you get closer and you realise that Hitchcock died way to soon as he would have certainly made a movie called: The Bats! Yet this time, on our safari trip, we explored the wilder side of Borneo and encountered some magnificent creatures that make you understand, without a doubt, that Darwin was right and that life evolves and adapts to its surrounding with magnificent capabilities.

Orang Utan

In Borneo you can find Orangutans and Proboscis monkeys. In the Indonesian language, Orang means Man or People so when seeing the size and human like shape of these great primates, you quickly understand where they got their names from.
Proboscis Monkey

Proboscis Monkey

But it is when we encountered in the wild the Proboscis monkeys, a long nose monkey the size of a man with short fair hair, a big belly and a very bright red reproductive organ that we knew we had seen the best of Borneo’s animal kingdom! This humanly primate only exists and can only survive in the jungle of Borneo and we were lucky enough to see dozens of them, perhaps 30 or 40, hanging in trees at sunset. They sometimes look like trailer trash men who are waiting for their wives to bring them a beer, while doing… nothing. A Tiger Beer please!

The baby Orangutan needed to go!


Yet the pigmy elephants stole the show by coming so close to the river, so close to us that it brought the 10 year old girl in me back to the surface. There were many of them, perhaps a dozen, tearing apart the long grass that will unveil the new green tender growth that they are seeking to feed their large pigmy appetite. Yes they are adorable and did I say it: Right next to us on the Kinabatagan River banks. If you ever do this river safari, take a small boat at around 4:00 PM and stay till the sun sets at 7:00 PM. The animals all come to the river to feed and to drink at that time. If you are very lucky like my friend Tim, you may see a herd of elephants swimming across the river. A few crocodiles may be part of the party too if you look carefully around you. If you have time after, take a night walk in the jungle with a flash light (and a guide) to have a hell of a spooky experience.

pigmy elephants stole the show on the river bank

It is sad to think that all these great creatures and outstanding giant forests are critically endangered to a point that they will no longer exist in the next 20 to 30 years, perhaps before. Our generation participated in the destruction of it all and when I see the growth of Asia, the demand for food, agriculture and palm cooking oil, one can only wonder how much time is left before the complete eradication of these unique biological wonders. Do not get me wrong, Asia has the right to live their growth like the Western world enjoyed theirs and although many people of our generation are trying to make people aware of the devastation that is happening around the world and are trying to preserve what is still intact, we will need to count on the new generation to make it real.

But then I get a reality check when I realise that most young people in the world have never bought a CD, have created a new virtual society on Facebook or QQ.com before knowing what the real human one was, that to them agriculture is a fun game called Farmville and Orangutan should get a waxing or be a stuffed animal. When I see that the last survey done in schools across the USA reveiled that 90% of the Y generation had never heard of Michelangelo before it became a computer virus and thought that Jimmy Carter was an actor while most of them had no idea that internet did not always existed, I cannot stop wondering: Who will care?

When I see two young girls or boys walking together but texting to other people without exchanging a look or a word to one another and when I see the world being lived in pixels instead of in emotions, I keep wondering what will the evolution be from now on.

If I ask the question today: Who is Darwin?

I am afraid that the answer will be:

Darwin is an open source POSIX-compliant computer operating system released by Apple Inc. in 2000. It is composed of code developed by Apple, as well as code derived from NeXTSTEP, BSD, and other free software projects. (source Wikipedia)”

Perhaps we can make a computer game that is called “Save the Proboscis Monkeys and Orangutans of Borneo” and the winner will get a free download of Darwin!

Cheers!
Helene
http://www.orangutan.or.id/media.php?module=content1&id=5&id_sub=5

The river cruise safari

Proboscis waiting for a Tiger Beer





This is How We Treat Friends in China!

2 10 2010

Tourist day at Forbidden City

Over the past three years I have been to China about five times, or so I thought!  But in reality, I had been to Shanghai.  This time my business trip was going to take me to three cities, like a rock tour: Shanghai for two days, Beijing for four days and Guangzhou/Shenzhen for the remaining two days.

My first trip to Shanghai, a few years back, made a great impression on me.  This modern futuristic mega polis and financial center had everything you can imagine and more: fabulous hotels, restaurants, neighbourhoods and amazingly cheap taxis.  But this is not what my imagination had made up of China and I wanted to see the real China, the one that is traditional and architecturally different from what I am used to, so when I had expressed this thought in Shanghai,  my colleagues had taken me to the walled Chinatown area!

-How could China have a Chinatown area? I asked my colleague Sunny.

-Well Helene, Shanghai has developed so quickly and in such a modern way that they had to protect a little area for tourists like you who wish to see what it use to be.  The Pudong area that contains all the highest and most futuristic sky rises of Shanghai was a fishing village sixteen years ago and it is now this ultra sophisticated city of 15 million people.

So I thought I had been to China over the last three years because I had been to Shanghai numerous times… But this time, I went to China!

My first stop was again in Shanghai in the French quarters that still has a flair of Europe with a big touch of Asia.  I stayed at my regular Regal International hotel that has a business floor for women and do, like most five star hotels of Asia, understand what the ultimate service and comfort is, to a level you can only experience here. But the 42 degrees in the shade with a humidex factor that gave the sensation of 50 degrees Celsius was unbearable. The extreme heat made your jewellery burn your skin and made walking an effort that would absolutely need to be rewarded with a beer or some sort of a heavenly experience at the end.

The first day, my friend and colleague Steve Baker rewarded me with the beer and the second day,  an unknown local hair dresser salon surprised me with the latter one: A 30 minute hair wash while lying down on a massage table with a head neck, back and shoulder massage that made me believe that there is a heaven on earth, even in this hell-like temperature and that above all, heaven only cost $40.00 (Sing), massage, wash and blow dry included.

Yet, Saturday morning, it was with great enthusiasm that I left Shanghai to my next destination: Beijing.  There, I would spend the weekend visiting with my great friend Kevin who I worked with for a year in Singapore.  Kevin is the kind of genuinely fine intelligent professional that becomes even more interesting as you get to know him.  I feel privileged that he calls me friend and China should be proud of such a fine citizen.  He has a passion for his country that is contagious and it is not because he has not seen the rest of the world or is oblivious to things China still need to ramp up to, on the contrary.  Kevin is one of the best ambassadors China can have. This time, I would also have the opportunity of meeting his lovely wife Sherrie who has done her university studies in Ottawa and speaks an impeccable English (same goes for Kevin).

Peking Duck in Peking

A tour at the silk factory emptied my wallet

As soon as I landed in Beijing I rushed to the Sofitel to get changed for my first sightseeing of the day: The Forbidden city. The new Sofitel was so spectacular and sophisticated that my jaw dropped, but sorry Sofitel, no time to stare at this young beauty because I have a busy happy afternoon ahead of me.  For the next few hours, I played the real tourist in Beijing, from the temples to the silk factory with a stop for the tea ceremony an a walk at Tiananmen Square. To describe the building on my right, I spontaneously said:

-Oh is this the parliament? Then immediately burst out laughing when I realised what a joke I had accidently made.  The government office was more appropriate and I corrected myself right away with a smile on my face.  I meant:

Tiananmen Square

Is this where the country’s leaders are?

-Yes, this is where the government governs Helene! Said my tour guide.

Every morning there is a change of guards, you should come back to see it.

They should change them more often I replied, poor them, it is 38 degrees in the shade today and here they are standing still for hours… in the sun dressed in wool!!!

Guard at 38 degrees

The morning after, Kevin picked me up early to drive to the Great Wall.  It is only 50 km away from Beijing, but it took hours to reach.

Beijing has twenty-four million people and approximately 30% of the population own a car.  No wonder lately they experience major traffic jams of 18 km long!!   The traffic is brutal. But while sitting in Kevin’s beautiful Passat and looking around the impeccable highways, all I could see is cars, cars and a lot of nice cars.  Passat, Audi, Mercedes, Lexus, etc.  I did not see one old car in the thousands of vehicles I got to see in the four days I was in Beijing.  One thing I noticed is that Audi and VW have an outstanding market share here.

For the entire day, blessed by a blue sky and no pollution (very rare in Beijing),  I could not once be fast enough to pay a ticket, a drink or anything.  I was treated like a princess and literally felt like one.  At the end of the day, Sherrie and Kevin crowned my princess day with the best Peking Duck  one could experience in the heart of the city where this famous dish was born.  The day could not have been better and I had reached my second heaven of the week, but even exhausted, Kevin insisted that he has to show me the Bird Nest Stadium created for the Olympics, which becomes one of the most beautiful and intricate piece of architecture at night when the lights enhance its features.   Kevin was right, it was spectacular.  I spared him to drive me back even if he insisted as I knew that his little detour to the Sofitel would have cost him a couple of hours in traffic.

If by now you are still wondering what I thought of the Great Wall after all this: It was really impressive under this crystal clear day and worth seeing for sure.  I was not the only one who had this thought because millions of people had the same idea as us that day!  The wall was carpeted with people as far as the eyes can see.  Yes the Great Wall is impressive and yes it is worth seeing, but in reality, it is the people of China that are the real treasure of the country. It is the people of China that is the real China I was looking for. The kindness, intelligence and passion that inhabits the country.

Great Wall with Great Friend Kevin

On Monday, it was time to go to work and after a great successful day I was again surprised by two of my Chinese colleagues who offered to spend the evening with me and show me Beijing from another angle: The Hutongs!  During my first two days I had seen the city of Beijing as the proper, clean modern city with large avenues and government buildings: Beijing was a typical capital with history and lot’s of people buzzing around.

While in a car or walking around I had seen tall walls that I thought were just that: tall walls or fences hiding an embassy or a school.  Never I had imagined that behind these walls lived another city, the one I was looking for.

A walk in the hutongs of Beijing

Walking into a hutong is like entering another world by simply opening the small red door on the wall. It is like a video game that you are facing several doors not knowing what awaits behind.  On the other side of the door is China, the one I had imagined: Small and narrow streets with local people busy with their lives, an entire community intricately taking care of each other with local restaurants that rapidly create a delicious meal behind a curtain that I would not penetrate by fear of discovering what no one should see if you wish for a magical moment to remain intact.

Some of my colleagues, who today live in high rise modern condos, were raised in the hutongs.  While grabbing one more delicious oyster spiced with aromas of freshness, my colleague became melancholic and spontaneously expressed:

30 years ago when I was playing with my friends in the streets of the hutongs, we were dreaming of success, of owning a condo like the rich people, of buying a car and to have sanitarians in the house with luxury at our finger tips.  This is what I dreamed and this is what I have today.  But when I look back at my childhood, I would give it all up to go back and live in the hutongs again.  The friendship, the family spirit and community atmosphere is so much better.  In the hutongs even strangers take care of you, of your children with all doors open, it is very safe and the world is a better place.  In my condo I don’t know my neighbours and quite frankly they don’t want to know me either.  We live alone with our little family and take the car once a week to visit the parents, we plan to walk 15 minutes to the park to have our children play on Saturday and Sunday.  In the hutongs, life was so much better.

-But would you be willing to go back to basic, get the community toilet with all the neighbours, etc. (my sanitary standards rose above the emotions here)

True Helene, I might find it hard but today we can renovate the houses and make them up to new standards, he replied.

-Great! Problem solved; sell your condo and buy a house in the hutongs! I enthusiastically replied.

-I cannot afford it Helene, the real-estate in Beijing has gone up so much and many people want to go back to the hutongs so today it would cost millions to buy a house here.

-Wait a minute, are you telling me that all of these great people walking simply on the street or riding their bicycles and living with the strict minimum are all millionaires?

-Yes, if they sell it, yes!

-My problem solver mind continued its thought process with me saying: Great! Sell your condo for 500K, get a mortgage for the rest and buy one.

-They burst out laughing and began to tell me that it is not in their culture to take mortgages. Chinese people pay cash!

Kevin had told me this and the guys confirmed it: In China people save money and pay everything cash.  Their cars, their houses and everything else.

-If you think about it Helene, people may live a simpler life, but the reality is that many Chinese are way more richer than the standard Westerners.  We don’t have debts and we save money. Lot’s of money.

I realised that most of my colleagues, younger than me, who earn probably half of what I make, have more money than their counterpart in the western world.  Think for a moment and remove your mortgage, car debts and credit card payments and then see how much you have left before your next preconceived thought about China invades your mind.

Yes China still has parts that are extremely poor and underdeveloped, and yes they are aware that they need stronger individualistic thinking, but my trip also made me realise that China is as diversified in languages, cultures and standard of living as Europe is.  If you would slice China in several countries like Europe, you would have many countries of 40 to 100 million people with some countries being very rich with a strong economy and astonishing growth and some countries struggling with their development.  China is many countries in one and many of them are debt free!  How is that compare to what is going on in Europe these days.

After nine days of having people carrying my laptop, opening doors for me, paying for every move I make,  reserving the best in class restaurants for me to experience extraordinary culinary discoveries, after nine days of having a window to the Chinese culture thanks to my colleagues and friends who speak impeccable English and translated everything to make my life comfortable, after all this time getting to know these amazing people I felt hopeless on how I will find ways to thank them.

I went back home and sent a gift to my friend Kevin as a small token of appreciation and he sent me the following email:

-Helene, thank you so much for your gift but you should not have done this. It is unnecessary.  We are not colleagues in business, we are friends and this is how we treat friends in China! It is our culture.

Cheers,

Kevin!

Well, Kevin, I thought I was debt free, but I have one now when I think of how much I owe to the great people I met and spent time with in China.  Special thanks to Edmund too. This blog is for you guys!

Cheers,

Helene

A walk in the Emperors Thumbs Park

An artisan at the silk factory of Beijing

The Bird Nest

The Great Wall has been carpeted... with people

Beyond the Great Wall

Lunch time at Forbidden City 🙂





Have You Taken Your Lunch?

3 06 2010
Have I taken my lunch yet?

From $2.50 to $100, you can have your lunch in Singapore

Each country has its own particularity that makes it unique, that makes it different from its neighbour, and every year each of them is trying very hard to attract tourists from all over the world with a slogan or a major advertising campaign. The “I love NY” charmed everyone and was copied by many, the Sunshine State slogan on the license plates of Florida makes us want to migrate for the winter and bite a fresh orange during the cold months.  What about the famous “Je me Souviens” in Quebec that most of you are too young to know what we should be remembering, but still make people ask the question over and over:  What are we supposed to remember??

Singapore is no different in that sense and currently there is an open public debate on the web because Singapore is about to spend millions of Sing dollars for an ad campaign promoting the new slogan: “Your Singapore!”.  Some argue that it is good because each of us has a unique way of seeing and appreciate the beauties of Singapore, yet Singaporeans often raise the patriotic argument that Singapore belongs to them and is not for sale to foreigners as if they were afraid that an ad campaign telling people that Singapore is Yours, will make them give their country to strangers. Regardless of whether the arguments are valid or not, I sincerely think that they are completely missing the point.  What is really unique to Singapore is its way to greet people of all age or ethnic with the cutest question: Have you taken your lunch?

This is most often what Singaporeans will say when you meet them: Hello Helene, have you taken your lunch? And the answer is: Yes!

Saying “Have you taken your lunch?” is exactly like you saying “Hi! How are you?” and you would answer: Fine!

You do not want to hear: Oh! I am not doing good, I had an argument with my 10-year-old this morning, bla blabla bla! YOU WANT TO HEAR: FINE AND YOU?

Nowhere I have traveled to in my life have I been greeted with such an adorable question: Have you taken your lunch?

So here it is to the Tourism Board of Singapore: You are missing the boat and you should make a campaign that promotes the fact that here, you will never go hungry! Singaporeans will not let you! 🙂 Your slogan should be: Let’s do lunch… in Singapore!

This unique greeting message is asked regardless of who you encounter; you get into a taxi and the chauffeur will look at you and pop the question: Hello Miss, have you taken your lunch? If you go to a corporation for a meeting the receptionist will first ask the lunch question and then (in case someone would have forgotten), the secretary of the President you are about to meet will ask the same question again.  Your answer:  Yes I have, thank you and You?

-Yes I did, thank you!

Isn’t that the most adorable ice breaker you’ve ever heard? Think of every situation you encounter during the day where you say “Hi, How are You?” and now replace it with the Singapore’s unique greeting of “Have you taken your lunch?” Only then you will get the picture.

You can stay reassured that Singaporeans will not skip lunch

But Singaporeans really mean it and food is the most important topic on everyone’s watery mouth.  The newest restaurant (a new amazing one opens daily) or the secret place where one can eat the best Ba-kut-Teh* in town or the best dim sum. What about the best brunch of Singapore? ask 10 people and they each will forward a suggestion. My friend Karen even says that while we are eating in Singapore, we talk about what else we could have been eating and how good it must taste. If you spend a week without someone trying to promote the infamous Durian fruit and challenge you to try it even though the smell is repulsive, you are not in Singapore. Of course, every time they will mention where to buy it or where to get Durian ice cream, Durian cake or Durian tea… name it, they know where to buy it! They even have the Esplanade theatre structure that is an inspiration of the Durian fruit. No wonder two of the top fifty restaurants of the world are located here in Singapore.

You cannot talk enough about Durian in Singapore

Yet, this is the fruit that is forbidden in any public places or transport system due to its overwhelming smell

If you offer a free lunch at your event you will likely have a lineup of people (and trust me, Singaporeans can afford their lunch).  If your ego was boosted because your conference had 200 people, remove the free food and you will see your ego-balloon burst! Poof! Next time 10 to 15 people will more likely be your score.  Food is a priority, yet many and I insist on MANY Singaporeans do not know how to cook.  They go out for lunch and dinner.  Food is everywhere, delicious and for all budgets:  Outstanding duck and rice in a Hawker Centre: $2.50 or a great italian meal at OTTO: $$$$$ Ouch!

So where does this expression come from? Why are Singaporeans so eager to ask you if you had your lunch that it became the national greeting phrase?  I asked the question around to realize that most likely it comes from their grand-parents or ancestors who suffered greatly during famines in China.  When you would meet someone, you would ensure that they have eaten because it was the most precious thing you could offer for survival.  Chinese are not beggars in nature, they would never ask someone to give them food for nothing in exchange so one had to enquire in order to ensure their neighbour does not go hungry. You would never see Chinese people eating alone either or order individual portions. Sharing food is in their DNA and I hope they never lose this beautiful trait of character.  Today Singaporeans ask the question without the weight of the real meaning behind their greeting message, it is in the culture to ask if you had your lunch and as mentioned above, it has the same tone as when you ask the traditional and international “How are You?” At least, “have you taken your lunch” narrows it down to one topic instead of a wide range of answers that one could get from the question: How are you?

But believe me they often really mean it.  The other day, Annabelle (our house keeper) was late to go to school and missed her bus.  In panic of being late she hailed a cab knowing it would cost her the only $15 she had brought with her, but she was determined not to be late and hopped in the cab. During the ride she made a phone call to a schoolmate and let her know that she would be short of money and that she could not accept her offer of sharing her table at lunch time.  The cab driver overheard the conversation and when she reached her destination, the cab driver said:

I cannot charge you miss because I cannot bear the thought that you will have to skip lunch, it is too important!

Annabelle who has been in Singapore for 20 years, did not think it was a very unique gesture even though she was very appreciative and thanked the uncle (this is how we call taxi drivers in Singapore) many times before rushing into the school.

I hope this was food for thoughts for all of you! 🙂

Let’s do lunch when you come and visit Singapore.

Helene

*Ba-Kut-Teh is a traditional Chinese Hokkien soup popularly served in Malaysia, Singapore, China, Taiwan and Indonesia

This is what a Durian looks like. It is very big so never stand under the tree, it could kill you!

This is what a Bak-kut-teh is and it is quite good!








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