Singapore does’t shut down often, but it shuts down good over Lunar New Year. Unlike China, where new year celebrations last for weeks and schools and businesses are closed during the busiest travel season of the year, Singapore grants two days of public holiday for the celebration. Many restaurants and businesses also shut their doors for two days or more, which only otherwise happens around Christmas. And even then, it’s not hard to find places that are open.
Lunar New Year, though, is different. The roads are quiet, public transportation is quiet, and there’s little activity around town. I headed to Chinatown one morning to look at the decorations and see what was going on; it was slightly busier than I expected but not busy at all.
There is also a really beautiful Hindu temple in Chinatown and its well-wishing puts into perspective one of the aspects of Singapore that I really love.
The following day I headed to Little India early in the morning and watched the neighborhood wake up. The sights and sounds of Little India are like nowhere else in Singapore and it feels like a different world entirely.
I love the colors . . .
. . . the markets and shops . . .
. . . and echoes and signs life being lived.
Singapore is glittery and shiny and other worldly and yes, it looks like whatever you saw in Crazy Rich Asians (or The Bachelor though I haven’t actually seen it). But when you look closely, Singapore looks like this, too.
The impetus for my trip to Europe was to visit my brother during his semester studying in London, but prior to meeting him, I spent time in Leiden and The Hague, Brussels, and Ghent and Bruges. We chose to meet in Amsterdam because KLM has a direct flight from Amsterdam to Singapore so it would be easy on both of us.
It was raining, windy, and unpleasantly cold when we found each other in Amsterdam’s central train station. I was reading a book next to a baby grand piano that invited travelers to sit and play, heard my brother call my name, and looked up. I hadn’t seen him since July and it was so great to reunite, give him a hug, and go off on an adventure in a place new to both of us. As travelers, we both enjoy just walking around and seeing what there is to see. So, after dropping our backpacks at a storage facility in the middle of the city, that’s mostly what we did for the couple days we were there.
Growing up in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York in a city built around a canal and a river, we’re both used to life along the water but Amsterdam was constructed differently from any city we’d been to. It felt like it was designed for people instead of people fitting themselves around the design. Being in Amsterdam made it easy to understand the emphasis on commerce and exploration that made the Netherlands a European imperialist power. Of course, we loved all the bikes and houseboats, too.
As we wandered, we spent a few minutes in the Begijnhof, the former residence of a Catholic sisterhood who took no vows lived like nuns . . .
. . . stepped into De Krijtberg to verify that it was indeed a church (the Jewish stars above the doors left us a little uncertain) . . .
. . . and walked through a lovely flower market. It’s April in Amsterdam, after all!
Before returning to pick up our bags to take them to our Airbnb, we snacked on Dutch waffles (very different from Belgian waffles) at Albert Cuypmarkt. It sells everything, as markets do, and is located in a cool neighborhood. Market visits are my favorite travel activity because of the diversity of people and products. Look through a market and you’ll know what people buy, what they eat, the cost of living, and how people get along with one another.
We were lucky to find Café Gollem Amstelstraat our first afternoon in Amsterdam and made friends with the bartender while enjoying the largest cheese plate we’d ever seen. I loved that the bar had wifi and people were there working on laptops. Reading the chalkboards on the walls, my brother noticed that they sold Westvleteren 12, often voted the best beer in the world (though this may be changing). Oddly enough, we’d talked about that beer earlier in the day and just looked at each other for a moment.
We asked the bartender if the bar indeed had it in stock. They did. We asked if it was actually the best beer in the world. He hesitated. He told us that it’s been called the most perfect beer and that it’s unique, special, and really indescribable. He confirmed that the scarcity and mythology around it only add to the appeal and assured us that we’d enjoy it, but that we should be aware that we were unlikely to immediately experience a “wow” moment.
At 10.2% alcohol, our second drink of the afternoon, and a price tag of €15, we figured we’d split a bottle. Koen, the bartender, poured the beer into two glasses that looked like wine glasses, reserving the last couple swallows to split into two shot glasses. He told us to wait until the beer warmed up a bit and to drink the shot glass pour, where all the yeast settled, slowly, alongside the glass of beer.
The first thing we noticed was the aroma. Koen was right that we wouldn’t be able to describe it, but it was indeed unique and special. As advertised, the taste of the beer was not a “wow, how delicious” moment; it was more like experiencing beer for the first time in its most perfect, pure form as in, “Oh, this is what beer tastes like.” The liquid in the shot glasses tasted and felt completely different; it had more texture and a deeper taste than the rest of the drink. The whole experience was new and interesting and one that my brother and I were glad to share.
Before we left, Koen told us he’d be hanging out at the bar that night if we wanted to stop by again. He taught us the word gezellig, which I had recently come across (though had no idea how to pronounce) in a book on language and emotion. It means feeling pleasant and cozy with friends, which is certainly how we felt leaving the bar and when we returned later that night.
After it got dark, we spent some time in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s infamous red light district. For obvious reasons, photography isn’t allowed there. (Though everything else seems to be, so maybe it’s not that obvious.) The red light district is full of bars, weed cafés, and shops selling all sorts of interesting objects. And women beckoning provocatively behind glass doors. And promoters advertising shows of all kinds. It took me until much later that night to accurately articulate my reaction to what we’d seen. Without knowing it, and as a result of its absence, I realized that I had expected the atmosphere to playful; it was anything but. Human bodies were up for sale and people were shopping and buying. Sex is an industry and one can buy, sell, and commoditize any and every part of it. The whole thing becomes really dark and grim when you realize you’re walking through a flesh market alive and well on city streets.
We got up late the following morning and decided to escape the city for a while. We took a train to Haarlem, just 20 minutes west of Amsterdam. After the busy day and late night were glad to be in a much quieter, sunny little town. We stopped for hot chocolate, the special kind where you choose a real piece of chocolate and stir it into steamed milk, and followed my usual plan without a plan of walking towards the tallest building. We found the town’s central square and toured St. Bavo’s Church . . .
. . . and then spent our time wandering through the cobblestone streets and looking into windows of shops and restaurants. We mostly just enjoyed being away from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam and looking at pretty gardens down little alleys in front of homes and small businesses.
We also enjoyed the architecture outside of the Cathedral of St. Bavo (Bavo was born in Ghent but is the patron saint of Haarlem) . . .
. . . and only stepped inside for a moment to see some very interesting stained glass. Hebrew and other Judaica are very common in Christian buildings if you know where to look, but somehow always surprise me.
Our bartender friend suggested we check out one of his favorite bars in Haarlem, and naturally we did. My tiramisu stout was delicious and my brother had his first sour. Of course, there was cheese to go along with it.
Haarlem also had a bit of an attitude, which made us laugh:
The sun was still out when we walked through Kenaupark along a canal on our way back to the train station late that afternoon. We agreed that Haarlem would be a lovely place to live, both because it’s really nice and because it’s close to a real city.
Back in Amsterdam, desiring to maintain some of the peace and quiet that we had experienced in Haarlem, we followed the canals towards their source in the tributaries off the North Sea. The sky had grown cloudy but I was glad to be on the docks with the boats.
The next morning, we brought our bags to the same storage facility in city center and made our way to the Rembrandt House Museum. I really love seeing how people lived way back in the day. Rembrandt’s life looked quite comfortable and, as my brother pointed out, it’s rare that an artist was so celebrated while still alive.
Amsterdam also has a really cool statue dedicated to Rembrandt in the aptly-named Rembrandtplein, the city’s central square:
Feeling cultured, we decided we’d visit one more museum that day. On our way to the museum district, we walked through a flea market selling clothing, shoes, and cool pieces of art . . .
. . . which led us to a statue of Amsterdam native Baruch Spinoza (the birds were symbolic, but I can’t remember why) . . .
. . . and a memorial to the victims of World War II. . . .
Amsterdam has a historic Jewish Quarter but we didn’t spend much time there. We happened across the Portuguese Synagogue one evening and meant to come back, but that’s the day we went to Haarlem instead. Normally, we would have visited the Anne Frank House, but it was unfortunately closed for Passover until the night that I left. Lucky brother went without me.
Our plan for the last afternoon was to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Vondelpark, full of people on the first warm day all week. On arrival, though, we learned that new rules meant tickets were timed and only available online. Unable to get tickets for that day, we opted for the Rijksmuseum just across the park, which houses very famous Dutch art, including several pieces by Rembrandt we’d learned about that morning.
There were street musicians playing in the covered museum courtyard and we stopped to listen. I’m always impressed with just how talented some people are and it reminds me over and over how difficult it is to make it in the arts worlds.
We had a very late lunch after the museum and wandered around a little while longer, enjoying the canals and the sunshine, before I took a train to the airport. There was a lot I enjoyed about just being in Amsterdam because the people of this city have something to say and want to be heard.
As usual, I appreciated the flavor and feel that street art and graffiti lend to a city. It’s a way of getting to know the people of a place and understand a bit about who they are and what matters to them.
In all, we really enjoyed being in Amsterdam. A city built on canals and for bicycles feels different than many places I’ve been. The graceful bridges and buildings that go right up to the water lend a lot of beauty to the city and I think the locals have a right to be concerned with negative impacts of tourism. Our Airbnb away from city center helped us understand what it means to live in Amsterdam and made me like it a lot more than I did in the crowded tourist areas. As usual, I haven’t seen everything yet, which means I’ll have to come back. Amsterdam, thanks for having us!
Two years ago, I spent a week in Battambang, Cambodia’s second-largest city, as part of my school’s field studies program. That week completely changed the way I see education, my role as an educator, and what is possible with and for students. Last week, I had the opportunity to return to Battambang with about sixty grade 10 students for the same program, a week that has left me again convinced that young people can do anything as long as we support them.
On this trip, I acted as the school trip leader and worked closely with the program lead from the JUMP! Foundation, the organization that really puts together the whole experience. I can’t say enough good things about the work they do for students and communities and I am so proud to partner with them.
As trip leader, I wasn’t attached to a particular group of students and instead filled in for staff as needed, managed all student issues from discipline to illness to homesickness, switched groups daily to get to know each student, and met nightly with school staff and JUMP!’s lead to hear feedback about the day. Prior to the trip, I arranged airplane travel and rooming assignment, worked with teachers on curriculum coordination, communicated with parents, and managed petty cash. And, despite mental fatigue that hasn’t quite worn off, I really enjoyed it!
Welcome to Battambang, the arts and culture center of the Kingdom of Cambodia!
We flew into Siem Reap and immediately drove the three hours to Battambang where we spent the rest of the week. One of my friends immediately pointed out how much greener Cambodia is in November than it was in February on our last trip. It was really nice to be back in a city I had come to know a couple years before and see how it had changed.
On our first full day, I went with a group taking a tuk tuk ride to Phnom Sampov. Many of the students had never been on a tuk tuk, which is a really lovely way to see and engage with the countryside. The ride itself is beautiful and provides insight into how people live in a country still recovering from decades of civil war.
Phnom Sampov is a mountain dotted with Buddhist temples. We paused in front of several, but the goal of our time there was to visit a killing cave, one of the many legacies of the Khmer Rouge. Each group was partnered with a local facilitator for the week, in addition to teachers and a JUMP! facilitator, which gave the students a cultural connection to Cambodia that they would not have had otherwise. That was a change from the first trip and made a great impact on the students’ understanding of where they were and why.
That afternoon we visited Buddhist University and two monks led us on a tour of the campus temple and then guided us through a short meditation. From there we visited teh university library, which, in addition to the novel sight of monks on laptops, had a specific section for writings by peacemakers. That made me very happy!
As our last activity of the day, we met the dancers of Cambodian Living Arts, one of the many organizations working to revive the arts and culture that were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era. They performed for us and then taught us a traditional dance involving coconuts, leaving everyone laughing and in high spirits. This was an uplifting change from the somber feel of the morning.
We caught a gorgeous sunset on our way to dinner, still travelling by tuk tuk. The sun rises and sets very early in Cambodia, something I always forget, but that also means that the stars are out when it’s still early enough to enjoy them.
The next day I joined a group at FEDA, an educational organization we used to work with that had just stopped its operation. Now, the visionary leader behind FEDA is working to build a peace museum on FEDA’s campus to chronicle Cambodia’s history and ongoing reconciliation work. That afternoon, we visited Banteay Srei, an NGO working for women’s empowerment in a country where there is a clear status difference between men and women from childhood onward.
It rained the following day, which was delightful because it cooled everything down and left the air quite pleasant. It’s always amazing to me how great of an impact weather has on the way we experience pretty much anything.
Another group started their morning with COMPED, an NGO that focuses on waste management and composting. The students learn about what COMPED does before going to the market to pick up organic waste. They then deposit it at COMPED’s dump sight. I missed it this year but remember the lesson very vividly: Everything goes somewhere and nothing disappears; we leave traces of ourselves wherever we are and that impacts people the world over.
Laster that day, I joined a group heading to Cambodian Children’s Trust. This is the organization that had the greatest personal impact on me from our last trip. CCT opened my eyes to the realities and dangers of orphanage tourism and the astonishing statistic that 80% of children in residential facilities worldwide have living parents. CCT works to support families by providing holistic care and services to the children they work with and their family members.
I went to bed laughing after spending the afternoon with a particularly entertaining group of young people. There’s a certain ease and genuineness that comes from eating together, learning together, and playing games together outside in sweaty clothes. It’s my favorite way to interact with students because everything I want for them, everything that leads to real questions, connections, and ideas, comes naturally.
The next morning we visited the Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit providing children with academic education as well as arts education, specifically centered on circus skills, as a way of providing them with future work opportunities. I’d seen Phare’s show in Siem Reap on this trip two years ago, but this time we were able to participate in an amazingly fun circus skills workshop! We learned tumbling and how to juggle, took a tour of the campus, and got to watch some of the students rehearsing. We saw Phare’s Battambang show on the last night of the trip and were excited to see the same students perform.
That afternoon, in keeping with the arts theme, we visited Lotus Gallery to meet a local artist and make some art. The gallery itself was beautiful and had a very calming influence on the students.
I spent most of the afternoon chatting with the artist about the creative process and how she gets inspiration from her love of nature and purposely surrounds herself with plants and flowers, even building a garden sidecar for her motorcycle!
I also enjoyed chatting with her husband about his work in drugs education through theatre. He told me that the drug of choice in Cambodia is methamphetamine, which likely comes into the country from Thailand. It was a real joy to meet a couple who have invested their lives in work that they are passionate about and can also make a positive impact on others.
I spent our last full day on a cycling tour with Soksabike, which had been a highlight for me the first time around. We stopped periodically to learn about local livelihoods and the local families that Soksabike supports. We visited a family making rice paper . . .
. . . Cambodian scarves, which are called krama . . .
. . . banana chips . . .
. . . and bamboo sticky rice, which is a popular street snack. . . .
The bridge that we would normally take to cross the river had been dismantled, so we crossed by ferry instead. Needless to say, I loved this part. Water and I get along really well.
After the cycle tour, we continued that day’s local living theme by visiting the market, which was just such a joy. The students had a scavenger hunt to help them interact with locals and my job was to follow a group and make sure they didn’t get into any trouble. We saw food stalls . . .
. . . the usual array of meat, fish, and produce (my favorite!) . . .
. . . textiles, toys, and dry goods . . .
. . . cosmetics and toiletries (and hairdressers and nail salons!) . . .
. . . and a surprising number of jewelry counters! (Hint: This is where we found the most English speakers.)
I love markets. They are always my favorite part (or pretty close) of any place I visit. I love seeing people come together for the same needs the world over. I love watching people interact and engage in the common pursuits of humanity. I love watching life happen in its most natural ways.
After Phare’s circus performance to round out the program, it was time for an early night before a 3am wakeup so that we could make the three-hour drive to the airport in time for our 10:30 flight. Absolutely worth it.
JUMP!, I can’t thank you enough. I watched students learn, grow as individuals, become closer to each other, create new friendships, engage with new ideas, and experience a culture and a place that is very different from what they usually see in Singapore. Thank you for bringing out the best in our young people. Thank you for all that you do.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place