Tuesday, November 24, 2009
There are some places I shop on-line that just work. You select the items you want to buy, click a button or two, and voila, a box arrives on your doorstep with your stuff in it. Awesome. Amazon is one company that jumps to mind. They've even got a "one-click" purchase option you can sign up for.
On the other end of the spectrum are companies like the ones I've been dealing with this week. I understand that the hurdles I have to jump over to make a purchase on-line have been put in place for "my protection," but why is it that some companies can make it easy while other make it so hard.
A big part of my problem is that I'm not making standard purchases. In both cases I was making a purchase on-line that wasn't directly for me. First, I bought myself a few scuba accessories online and had them shipped to my mother in Massachusetts. She is then going to forward them to me in Singapore much cheaper than I can get them sent directly here. The other was buying airline tickes for Melissa and Jack's summer vacation from Singapore Airlines.
After making my purchase online at the scuba company (joediveramerica.com), I got an email from their customer service department the next day. Since my billing address and shipping address didn't match, they needed further verification of my identity before they would ship my package. (Of course, they had already charged my credit card at this point.) They wanted me to fax them a copy of my drivers license and my credit card bill showing the purchase to prove that I owned the card I was using. I debated for a day and a half on whether I would send this to them. Considering that I'd already been billed and I didn't want the hassle of trying to talk them into refunding my money, I gave in and sent them what they asked for. Of course, I made a whiny comment to them that I thought it was a bit ironic that they were asking me for the info an identity thief would want in their effort to protect me. Regardless, even though the gear showed up right when they said it would, no more purchases from these guys.
Singapore Airlines was even more of a pain in the butt. We found tickets for Melissa and Jack's summer trip the the US at a great rate on Singapore Air. After filling out tons of info like passport numbers, email addresses, frequent flier numbers, names and ages for 20 minutes, we finally made it to the payment page. The page first asks you if the person paying for the ticket will be one of the travelers. I had my credit card with me, so I said "no." I then got a message stating that as I was not traveling as part of this purchase, I would have to fill out an affidavit stating I was paying for these tickets and I would be responsible for the cost of the flight. I would then have to bring myself, my credit card and this paper to a Singapore Air office prior to the flight to confirm the purchase.
"Forget this," I said. "Melissa, get me your credit card."
I switch back to "Yes, purchaser will be flying'" and the nasty message goes away. I then enter the data from Melissa's Visa card and hit "purchase". (You don't think this is the end of the story, do you?)
A new window pops up. "This card in enrolled in "Verified by Visa". Please enter your Verified by Visa password."
"What the hell is Verified by Visa? When did you sign up for this?" I ask Melissa.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," she says.
We try plugging in a few of the passwords we commonly use to no avail. A new window pops up on the screen. "Your session has timed out. Thank you for visiting singaporeairlines.com"
Great googily moogily.
What next? We start researching Verified by Visa. Turns out, it is a service provided by Visa in partnership with a number of vendors in an effort to never let you buy anything on-line ever again. After searching for 20 minutes, we find that we need to apply through the bank that issues the credit card. We then go to the Chase website and find their FAQ on Verified by Visa. We click on the link for "forgot your password" and it asks us to enter the card number. The next message is the one that sent me over the edge.
"As you have not previously set up a profile online, we can not access your information. Please contact Chase at 1-800 blah blah."
Alright....I then go back and try to set up a profile. After again entering the card number, I get this one.
"You already have an account. If you have forgotten your password, please click on the 'forgot your password' link to have your password emailed to you."
Both Chase bank and Visa are now invited to bite me.
At this point , my only option was to pull out my trusty American Express card. I don't know what AmEx does differently than everyone else, but I have never had one problem using that card. Of course, now I have to fill out another form, and drag myself to the Singapore Airlines ticket office downtown next Saturday, and submit my DNA and a stool sample to complete my purchase.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
In Singapore, the Chinese influence is very strong, as are the political ties with China. It becomes such a large looming presence that after a while, you want to get some sort of idea what it is all about. So, Melissa, Jack and I took a trip there a few weeks ago to try to experience China for ourselves.
I have to admit, we did the standard "tourist" thing and kept to only one city. We weren't trying to take in the entire Chinese experience, just to get a little taste. Beijing is a nice choice for that because there is over 2000 years of history available in the old temples, castles and of course, The Wall, that still exist for you to see.
We arrived at our hotel in outer Beijing and were very happy with it. We stayed at the new Traders Hotel on the outside edge of the city. While it was a bit far from downtown, it was a nice place and the price was right. On our first night there we just took it easy and went to a nearby restaurant for dinner.
The next morning, we had breakfast in our hotel and met our tour guide, Helen.
We were very fortunate that some friends of ours recommended a tour guide they had used when they visited Beijing last year. We essentially had our own personal tour guide just for Melissa, Jack and I. Helen was a Chinese history major in college and had been giving tours in Beijing for 10 years. It was great having her with us to tell us all about the places we were seeing.
Our first major stop was the Forbidden City. This was the old palace of the Emperors of China. If you've seen the movie "Empire of the Sun", this is the place.
Another old palace that we visited was the Summer Palace. This was the Emperor's summer residence. Back in the day, it was a long days journey outside of the city. Today, it's barely out into the suburbs.
(By the way, we'd had a lot of other good pictures to show you, but the memory card on our nice digital SLR camera decided to die after we got home. Over 200 pictures lost in the blink of an eye. These are the only ones we had left from our small second camera.)
Almost all of the outdoor walkways had the inlayed patterns in the concrete. I asked our guide how come they weren't worn down after hundreds of years of foot traffic. Apparently, the government replaces and repairs them every 10 years or so.
The other major excursion of the trip was to the famous "Great Wall of China." There are three parts of the wall that can be reached by car from Beijing. The part we went to was about 2 hours away by car and was a bit less touristy than the closest one.
Of course, if there's a fast way up, there's an even faster way down.
Posing for pictures at the bottom of the slide. Yup...that cost me $5.
Overall, I thought the wall was the most memorable part of the trip. While it has been "refurbished" many times, it was impressive to be standing on a structure that was so large and so old. I can't imagine what it was like to build it. Walking the length of the wall, you see the guard towers and a small barracks. Living there 1500 years ago must have been a crazy life. One thing I can tell you is that everyone who lived there must have had legs of iron. You can"t see it too well from the pictures we salvaged, but the wall is not at all flat. It rises and falls with the terrain. In many places the stairs along the top of the wall are so steep, you have to use your hands on the stairs too to make sure you don't fall. Going down in much scarier than going up.
After finishing at the wall, we decided to take a quick drive past the Bird's Nest Stadium and the Watercube Stadium that were used during the Olympics. We talked about going to see the inside, but were told it basically looks like any other stadium on the inside.
The one dish I wanted to make sure I had while I was in Beijing was Peking Duck. This is essentially the city that perfected the way to cook and eat duck thousands of years ago. Asking around, we got the same answer from everyone. If you want duck, go to "Da Dong." We think it's a chain of fancy duck restaurants in Beijing. We know the duck was good. We went there with a family we know who was also visiting Beijing at the same time. It was a fun meal and one of my favorite parts of the trip.
The other food adventure we took while in Beijing was to the night food market. It's pretty much just a string of stalls lined up on the side of the street in one of the busier areas of town. The reason we wanted to go was we'd heard about all of the crazy things you could get to eat there.
And of course, we have the two obligatory shots every American has to take when overseas.
And no, we didn't eat there.
There are other things I could write about, like the acrobat show, the pandas at the zoo and the silk factory, but I'm about ready for a break. It takes forever to upload these photos.
part 2 later.
Monday, October 26, 2009
I've got a cold this week and it made me remember something I wanted to write about.
During one of my first days working in Singapore, my secretary walked into my office one morning and handed me a piece of paper.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Mr. Luo's doctor's note," she said.
"His doctors note. He was out sick yesterday."
I couldn't believe what I just heard. "Seriously?"
"Of course...he was out sick yesterday. This is his doctor's note that confirms he was sick."
You've got to be kidding me. This guy is an adult professional and he's bringing me a doctor's note like he's a 2nd grader asking for a hall pass so he can go to the potty. I couldn't believe it.
It turn's out, this is standard practice in Singapore. I asked around the other expats in the office and even talked to other Americans I know working at other companies. It seems, Singaporeans aren't bothered by this practice at all. Can you imagine being a 40 year old professional engineer and needing to bring in a doctor's note because you took a day off at home with the flu?
I hardly ever take sick days. At most, I've taken two or three days over the last 5 years; one of those was when I threw my back out. If I'm sick enough to not be able to go to work, I'm not getting out of bed. Unless I think I need antibiotics (i.e. not just a cold) or a happen to have a broken bone, I'm going to stay in bed, get some sleep and go to work tomorrow.
I can maybe understand the note if you've needed to be out of work for a large number of days. Maybe you've got swine flu or spinal meningitis or brain cancer and you need more than a day or two off. If you're that sick, the trip to the doctor is warranted. But for one day? Really?
"Doctor, I have the sniffles. Can I stay home from school, um, I mean, work today?"
The thing that drives me nuts is that when these folks come back in to work with their little pieces of paper, they don't seem all that sick. A morning at the doctor's office in exchange for an afternoon of golf? Sounds like a good deal to me.
Monday, October 19, 2009
I've got a few things the write about, so hopefully I'll get a few different posts up in the next week or two.
Melissa, Jack and I just got back from a 5 day sight-seeing trip to Beijing. I'll get a big post about it up in a day or two. As I've finally got off my butt and figured out how to actually do something with the digital videos we've got, here's a short clip of one of our experiences at the night street-food market.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
The Singapore national parks system consists of a number of parks spread all over the island. Some of these park include lakes and wooded areas for hiking. Others are just a nice piece of green space with paths, bbq pits and picnic tables for people to have a Saturday cookout. Like most things in Singapore, the parks are very well managed and kept very clean. There is even an online reservation system for things like gardening classes, the bbq pits and tent camping.
I'd heard that people do go camping in the parks, so I brought the idea up with Jack. Sembawang park is right on the northern coast of Singapore, only about 15 minutes from our house. Jack couldn't wait to give it a try.
I went online a got us a camping permit that night. Jack and I did a short recon trip a few nights before and were happy with the way the park looked. We decide we'd set up right on the beach hoping to get a bit of a breeze. We'd bought a new tent over the summer to use on our annual Cub Scout trip and this would be our first chance to try it out.
Around 3pm on Sunday (Monday was a holiday), Jack and I arrived at the park and began setting up. There were a few other tents already scattered around the park. At the the small restaurant on the top of the hill, it looked like they were getting ready for a small wedding as well. Otherwise, everyone else was there to enjoy the beach (even through the water was filthy), go for a walk or just enjoy the park on a Sunday afternoon.
By 4pm, the tent and the rest of our stuff was all set up, but Jack and I were toast. It was about 90 degrees, sunny and not a breath of wind. At that point, we didn't care how clean the water was in the straight between Singapore and Malaysia...we just walked straight in. Ahhhhh. It felt so good to cool off.
After about 5 minutes in the water, we climbed out and started working through all of the stuff we had brought to keep us busy. We played Frisbee and soccer. We also spent a bunch of time going through Jack's Wolf Scout book. We made sure we'd checked off all of the things he'd accomplished either last year or over the summer. We also picked a few things Jack hadn't tried yet to complete. The best was definitely the treasure map. Jack hid a "treasure" (actually a stick) and then made a map so that I could follow it back to the treasure. It's funny how "60 steps toward the water" can mean two entirely different things when walked by a 7 year old or his 6'4" father.
Around 6:30, we made our way to our grill and started getting ready to cook dinner. We'd brought some charcoal and hotdogs that I started to set up. While getting ready to light the coals, I noticed that it was a lot more crowded now than it was a few hours ago. Tents were popping up left and right and there were huge groups of people all over the place.
Right after we lit the coals, a kid about 20 years old sat down next to us with a folded up tent on the picnic table we were using. I said hello and asked how he was. He said he was just waiting for his friends and did we mind if he just sat here to wait.
"No problem," I said. "When are your friends arriving?"
"Some time after 10:00," he said.
I looked at my watch. 6:40. Alright. Whatever.
"Excuse me," he says about 5 minutes later.
"Do you know how to put up a tent?"
You've got to be kidding me. "Yeah," I say. "Do you need a hand?"
"I don't know how to put up a tent," he says. "Can you help me set mine up?"
"Well, right now I'm tending a 2 foot tall burning tower of charcoal and a 7 year old in a crowded park, but maybe in a little bit, ok?"
"Thanks," he says. He then proceeds to sit next to us and stare into space while Jack and I finish getting our dinner ready.
After the coals had burned down a bit, I told Jack to stay put and walked about 40 yards away (where I could still see Jack) with this guy and his tent. After about 5 minutes, his tent was up and Jack and I were grilling hotdogs.
From this point, the park just continued to get more and more crowded. By the time it was dark, half a dozen college age kids has set themselves up about 5 feet away on one side of us and a huge Chinese family had set themselves up on the other side.
By 11 pm, things hadn't even started to slow down. Jack and I had been sitting outside the tent trying to keep cool but moved inside when the old Chinese lady next to us wouldn't stop staring at me. She's walk over to about 5 feet away from me and just stare. At first it was a bit weird, but then it just became funny. Jack and I would just giggle about it until we'd finally had enough and moved into the tent.
Fortunately, Jack was able to fall asleep shortly after 11. I wasn't as lucky and ended up listening to college kids shout back and forth in Mandarin until about 3am when I finally dozed off. When the sun woke us up at 6:45, our neighbors had made it though the whole night without sleep and were starting to pack up to leave.
After a breakfast of Pop-tarts, Jack and I started cleaning up our stuff around 8:00. By 9:00 the tent was in the car and we turned on the air conditioning. After a night trying to sleep in the humid night air (this is true...I could actually see the humidity in the air in the glow of the lights at night) the blast of cold air in the car felt wonderful.
Overall, it was a learning experience for Jack and I. Next time, we'll go in February when it's a bit less humid. We'll also pick a shady spot for our tent in the back of the park away from the busy beach area.
For a kid who grew up camping in the woods in Hew Hampshire, this was a new experience. This was a lot more like camping on the Boston Common than the Kancamagus.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Last night, Jack was putting a tooth under his pillow for the tooth fairy.
Melissa: Where do you think the tooth fairy lives?
Jack: Oh, he probably hangs out with Santa.
Jack: Yeah. The Easter Bunny, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, they're always going out for drinks together.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
The best part of staying here was that my entire family was all together for the first time in a few years. My other brother, Mike, had just moved in with Joe after quitting his job of 9 years and moving out of our hometown for the first time. He's now enjoying his new job working at "The Burg'" My parents had also timed their vacation for the same week and were staying at Joe and Liza's too. It was one crowded house of Tremblays.
This being my first vacation in a long time, one of the highlights of my stay in Sag Harbor was watching how hard my brothers and sister-in-law were working at the restaraunt everyday while I had nothing to do. For example. While Joe and Mike were at work, this is what I was up to:
We combined a lot of lounging by the pool with lounging on the couch and eating free food at Bay Burger.
One of the fun things we were all able to do as a family is have a great picnic dinner on the beach. Once a week, hundreds of people make there way to one of the beaches in Sag Harbor to "celebrate" the sunset with drums and dancing. It was an interesting and fun crowd of people at the beach that night. (The highlight for the "foodie" Tremblays was a sighting of Eric Ripert.)
While we were staying in Sag Harbor, we decided to make an overnight trip to NYC to behave like tourists and visit Melissa's old friend Sharon. The highlight of that trip was definitely our time on Broadway. We had already got ourselves tickets for the whole family to see the Blue Man Group. We also purchased tickets to see Mary Poppins while we were there.
If you've never seen it, the Blue Man Group is an interesting show. It's hard to describe. The simplest description is that it's music mixed with performance art. Sounds kind of weird, but it's a very cool show. Jack loved it.
While I wasn't too excited to go see the Mary Poppins musical, I have to say that I enjoyed it very much. Last year, Jack's music class had spent a lot of time singing songs from Mary Poppins, so he had already seen the movie and knew a few of the songs. The most impressive aspect of this show was definitely the sets. Huge, beautiful sets that included entire rooms dropping in from above and scenery rising out of the floor. The show ended with Mary flying out over the crowd as she left the family behind.
Our trip to New York, both NYC and Sag Harbor, was definitely the highlight of our summer.
After New York, we took the ferry from Long Island and then drove to Massachusetts to visit with old Matt's old friends.
We were very thankful to be able to stay in the condo of an old family friend who was out of town for the summer. It was a nice little two bedroom condo not too far from where I grew up. My parents stayed there with us for a few days before they had to go back to the Bahamas.
Our time in Mass. was essentially spent taking it easy. We spent a lot of our time with my friend Jeff and his family. He and his wife Leah invited us to their place for a great diner on our first night there. They also held their annual cook-out while were were in town and we got to see all of our old friends for an afternoon. The Spiderman bounce-house and the never ending game of wiffleball were the most popular events of the afternoon with the kids.
It was a great weekend seeing very old friends that we rarely get to see. We're already looking forward to planning our get together for next summer (Disneyworld anyone?).
After Mass., we jumped back into the truck and made our way to Jack's uncle Andy's house in Virginia. Melissa sisters had decided to make a trip (from Chicago and Austin) so that we could all see each other in VA. They each brought their two kids and we had a 2 day baby cousin convention. It was great to have all of the cousins together. We took advantage of it by getting pictures taken of all the kids. Imagine organizing 6 kids from age 1 to 6 for at least one good photo!
The next day it was back to Grandma Chris' house to pack up for the long flight back to Singapore. Packing all of those suitcases took the better part of an entire day to get done. We looked like we were bringing all of our earthly possessions with us on the plane. 6 large suitcases, 3 small carry-on suitcases and 3 carry-on bags. It was so much stuff, we had to have an 8-person van drive the three of us from the Singapore airport to our apartment.
Now that we've been back in Singapore for a few weeks, we've settled back into our regular routine. Jack is loving his new 2nd grade class and his teacher, Ms. Cuthbert. Melissa jumped right back into her scrapbooking groups and PTA jobs. I've been working a lot (as usual) but I'm also taking a scuba diving course. Next weekend, I go to Malaysia for the "open water diver" certification.
All in all, a great summer. We were sad when it ended but excited to get "back home" to Singapore.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Since my summer vacation has officially ended two weeks ago, I guess I should also end my vacation from the blog. There is so much to write about our summer “home leave” vacation, that I’ve definitely been procrastinating. I’ve finally got a day with no plans to sit down and try to put a very busy summer vacation into words.
There is so much to write about, I’ll have to break it up into a few postings. This one will be about the first trips we took after I arrived in the
For those who haven’t heard of it, Hersheypark is an amusement park in
Jack and I had never been to Hersheypark before. Melissa had been there when she was a kid. It was not at all what I was expecting. I figured this would be a small, worn out amusement park. This park was at least the same size as a Six Flags. There were 9 rollercoasters and dozens of other rides to go on.
When we arrived, we had some problems with our hotel reservation that took a little while to sort out. Fortunately, we were able to find another place to stay and even had enough time left to tour the candy factory our first night there.
As far as the “factory tour” goes, it was what you would expect. You don’t really see the factory, just a “ride thru” tour that shows how chocolate is made. Not must to see there unless you're into singing animated cows. What was a bit more interesting was the chocolate “tasting”. We were each given about five different kinds of chocolate to try. Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, yada, yada… A chocolate expert then talked us through each different kinds, explaining the flavors and what to look for when you tasted them.
The next day we started bright and early and were waiting at the park gate when it opened. We spent the entire day going on rides, eating junk food and generally enjoying ourselves. There were two really big moments of the day worth telling you about.
First, Jack went on his first upside-down rollercoaster. It was called the “Super Dooper Looper”. He wasn’t even a bit scared. He and I just jumped onboard and stuck our hands in the air and screamed for the whole ride.
The other biggie will forever be blamed on Melissa by Jack and me. There is an entire section of Hersheypark that is basically a waterpark. Unfortunately, we didn’t know this when we got ready in the morning and we didn’t bring bathing suits. There was a nice cool breeze that day anyway, so we weren’t wishing we could jump into the water that day. We did walk through the waterpark and rode the small flume ride they had. It got you about as wet as
“I don’t know about this, hon,” I say. “I really don’t want to be walking around in wet clothes for the rest of the day.”
“Oh, we won’t get that wet. We’ll sit in the back. Don’t be such a baby.” Melissa says.
Somehow, I foresaw what was about to happen and took my shirt off as we got on the ride. I took Jack’s from him too and put it with our bag in the little cubby holes next to the start of the ride. I’m sure you can see what is coming.
When the sign said “soaked”, it was totally accurate. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me. Every bit of every inch of our entire bodies; shorts, underwear, shoes, socks, hat, armpits…everything; was dripping, soaking wet. I don’t think we would have gotten that wet if we’d fallen into the wave pool.
As the ride slows to a stop, Jack looks at his mother with a quivering lip. “This is all your fault!” he says. At that point, all we could do was laugh and drip-dry throughout the day. At least it makes a good story!
Melissa discovered Great Wolf Lodge on a short trip to
Great Wolf is basically a big hotel that is designed to cater to families with kids. The biggest attraction at the hotel is the humongous indoor waterpark. There are huge waterslides, a lazy river and areas to climb and play.
The other fun thing that they offer is the “Wizard Adventure.” Kids can get (for a small fee, of course) a magic (electronic) wand that they can use throughout the center area of the hotel to go on missions assigned by the old wizard.
There are items spread all over the hotel for the kids to find. For example, a simple mission may tell the kid to find and point his wand at a painting of a dragon, a purple crystal sculpture and a yellow treasure chest. He must then search the hotel for these items, each of which have a sensor in them. The wand remembers which items he’s found and in which order. When he returns, he’s then given credit for completing the mission.
The missions get progressively longer and more difficult. Instead of just telling him what to find, he has to figure out riddles and clues to make his way from item to item. It all culminates in the battle with the great dragon (which is a huge relief to complete after two days wandering around the hotel!!!). After dinnertime, the hotel is littered with little kids running around in their pajamas looking for stuff (and crying when they can’t find it).
Jack had a blast there and it’s a place we would definitely return to. If you’re interested, they are a national chain, spread from
After Great Wolf, we were off to