Week One, Red Light District and Sentosa Island: Student life in FASSTrack


The first week of class was packed with surprisingly early mornings of commuting. Since the summer program is only five weeks in length I opted for off-campus housing to have more time to explore the city. Rather unexpectedly, I spent most of the first week on campus working on a group presentation for the following class.  I confess, sitting in a library is not the most exciting way to start of a new city. (Such is student life though; all is arranged around due dates. Don’t judge!) When I called home and was asked what Singapore is like, I could only say “very hot with a campus that has lot’s of slopes and some good food”.


There are advantages for studying a lot first week – now one of my two courses only has an exam left to worry about. There is another less obvious implication of studying for long periods, hunger. When working hard, one surely deserves good food, right? Singapore is known for having a diverse and rich cuisine, with excellent food at all price points. Befriending some locals helped direct me to the non-tourist hotspots. Surprisingly, a lot of good cheap food is found – you guessed it – in the Red Light District! The words “Red Light District” put-off many, but it is quite an interesting place juxtaposed with a mosaic of Buddhist temples, mosques and churches. It’s quite a safe space. That said, I chose not to wander there after nightfall, but always came with a group or at the least another friend. Some of my favorites include a small 24 hour dim sum place that serves just few items, all of which are excellent, a more than 60 year old Durian store, a corner roti store, and a “No-Signboard Seafood Restaurant”.




Drunken Bullfrog


Mao Sang Wang


Deep Fried Crocodile





The day the group presentation and paper was handed in, I ventured off to Sentosa Island a popular Island Resort for some lazy time at the beach. The island also hosts the popular Universal Studios, but to relax a sunbeds with beach bars beats theme parks every time!  One can watch the freight ships enter the port, and take a stroll in the warm sub-tropical beach water to close off a busy week. Next post will be a tittle-tattle on my field trip to Indonesia to study food commodities. The travelling dates falls during Ramadan and the heated presidential election so I’m bound for some cultural exchanges.

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The Golden Gate Bridge

golden gate ladiesphoto2photo 3photophoto4The Golden Gate Bridge is the most famous landmark in Bay Area. It connects San Francisco to Sausalito for bikes, walkers and cars. The second famous element to San Francisco is the fog. One of my goals was to fully see the Golden Gate Bridge. I had no control of the fog or the weather so this would just have to be left to luck. It is possible to see the Golden Gate Bridge from UC Berkeley campus, but it is better up close in person.

After my first week of classes I planned to go into the city for dinner on Friday night. I was going with a group of friends from McGill (two of them work in San Francisco for the summer and one is also studying at Berkeley). We went to Fort Mason, which has a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge, it was a sunny day in Berkeley but we did not know what the weather in San Francisco was. It was possible it could be few degrees colder, windy and fogged in. However it was sunny and this is when we saw the Golden Gate Bridge backlit by the setting sun. It was breathtaking and a highlight of my week.

We went to Fort Mason to take part in the weekly food truck event called Off the Grid. With over thirty food trucks and food from every continent, we had a wonderful meal. Sampling French street food, dumplings, fish tacos and donuts. There was live music and crowds of people enjoying themselves and the food. We loved being apart of the community sharing in the food and setting.

On Saturday I was meeting cousins back in San Francisco to bike over the Golden Gate Bridge. The saying, “it’s just like riding a bike” was literally how it felt to get on a bike again. It had been years since I rode a bike outdoors, but it is a life skill I have. We rented bikes and started on the adventure over the bridge. Saturday was the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer and the walk and our ride were following the same route. It was inspirational to see all of the walkers. San Francisco is known for their hills; thankfully we went down more hills than up. I had to keep reminding myself to ride, as the views were sensational. We could see the whole city and the bay area, and the bonus was there was no fog!

From San Francisco across the bridged to Sausalito is around 20 km. In Sausalito we went for lunch at Bar Bocce, named after the bocce ball court on the beach facing the harbor. Sharing pizzas and a game of bocce, we let our legs rest before returning to the bikes and returning back over the Golden Gate Bridge. During the ride back into San Francisco the water and the bridge were glowing gold, a reflection of its name.

Sorry for the lack of photographs, I was more concentrated on the bike riding then the picture taking!







Welcome to UC Berkeley

On the pier at the Berkeley Marina with the Golden Gate Bridge

On the pier at the Berkeley Marina with the Golden Gate Bridge

My new friend Rex

My new friend Rex

View from the steps at the Sather Tower

View from the steps at the Sather Tower

Welcome to UC Berkeley where I will be on exchange for the next six weeks exploring everything that the University and the Bay area have to offer; including the 27 libraries, 5 swimming pools, local cafes, farmers markets, sporting events, live music, museums and local Cal hangouts. As an American Studies student it was my dream to come on exchange to the United States and be able to experience first hand what I study. My exchange started on July 4th, American Independence day in San Francisco. I explored the city by foot and historical streetcar. It was very fitting that one of the streetcars was the Toronto colours and logo. After leaving San Francisco and crossing over to Berkeley, I was in heaven. The campus is twice the size of Disneyland and makes the University of Toronto feel small and easy to navigate. I have spent two days walking and getting lost, but to me that is part of the fun of exploring. During these explorations I found the two dinosaurs that live in The Valley Life Sciences Building, however they are just the fossils. In the end I joined a college campus tour and learned where different buildings were located and more of the history and services that Cal offers.
Berkeley was a pivotal place during the 1960s for student activism. Now this history is coming to light for me. Everything I have studied in the classroom at U of T is alive. Out of my bedroom window I have a view of People Park, an outdoor public space saved by the people of Berkeley in the 1960s when the university wanted to transform it into a parking lot. Today it has community garden and a space for people to enjoy the grass and sports courts. The best living legacy of the 1960s Berkeley is that the buildings only have one door handle, due to the lock in of the Chancellor by Free Speech Movement. The school is not the same as it was in the 1960s but its legacy continues.
From the steps of the Sather Tower, known to most as the Campanile, a 307-foot tall bell and clock tower on a clear day you can see the Golden Gate Bridge. This is one of my favourite places to sit on campus. You have an amazing view of the bridge in the distance and are in the heart of campus. As a Berkeley student I can go up the tower. I will do this on a clear day, as I want to able to see the full Bay Area.

Bustling Adventure: 3 Days in Vietnam


Chào Vietnam! My name is Cindy and I’ll be an exchange student in Singapore this summer. I decided to make use of the strategic location in South East Asia and embark on a small three-day trip before the semester starts. More about the first week of class in the next blog post. The first day in Ho Chi Minh reminded me of small cities in China, very busy and unregulated. A little scary to walk around with few streetlights and left and right turns everywhere, but soon enough I got used to jaywalking like locals.

After walking around the first day by foot I was able to cover most of District One; the financial and commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh. The many main attractions like Saigon Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office are heavily influenced by French colonial rule. The grand architecture though clashes with the scooters and the street vendors on the street that remind you that you are in Ho Chi Minh.

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Ho Chi Minh really is not a very walk-able city; anything beyond District one is impossible to reach on foot. In a city with about seven millions people there are four million scooters – almost the number of residents in Singapore! HCM really isn’t a place for a luxurious and pampering type of vacation, which is better left to either a resort in Phuket, or a big city with developed infrastructure. The trip however does offer a culturally rich experience. The second day, I hired a local tour guide and went around on a Vespa to other Districts in the city to see experience Ho Chi Minh like a local. I confess, the first few minutes were nerve wrecking, and there were times during the trip I thought it might have been a mistake to put myself amidst the crazy driving, but it is the fastest way to travel – even enjoyable once you’re accustomed. (Though, if you are really faint of heart, it might get to you. Still, if there is a time to take some risks it’s when traveling).

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The third day, I left the city and went to the Mekong Delta region, the “Rice Basket” of Vietnam. The soil in the region along the river is the most fertile and almost all locals here are involved in agriculture. I was hoping to visit the Cai Be floating market in the early morning to catch the small vendors, but by eight they had already cleared out, and only lone boats or wholesale boats were left on the water. Since the drive is about three hours from HCM, to catch the busiest time of the market, it would be better to find a place to stay in Cai Be the night before…  Even then, when visiting the market – I imagine – the landscape would have been almost the same centuries ago. Less the motors in the new boats of course, but the water, the houses, the buying and the selling of goods by the same families.

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N.B. I checked the price of tours online before landing in Ho Chi Minh, and must say, in this case do not plan everything before hand! At least do not buy tours, trips or vouchers before you get there. Tours that were $52 I found for $18, and $65 for $20. There is so much competition locally that you are guaranteed to find the tour you want for the lower price with vacancies for the next day.





Millionaires, Moths and Chicken Rice: An Intro to Singapore

Off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, barricaded from the Southeast Asian haze by skyscrapers and architectural marvels lies a thriving city-state and island country. I’m here squeezing the remains of a used teabag in what seems like one of the five or six homes not owned by millionaires…

I’m Sarah, an engineering undergrad at U of T with an incredible and overwhelming 13 months of travel experience to 21 countries and over 60 cities in Europe, Africa and Asia. This summer, I am working on a corrosion-based research project – go figure, Singapore’s busy port is also renowned for its ship repair services – in my field of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

I have boldly begun my exchange by dragon boating, traveling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with the NUS rock climbing team, and much more. The following are my first impressions of Singapore.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

The first and most obvious spur of culture shock is the climate difference, causing me to throw in the sweat-ridden towel and submit to the dewy island air and temperatures that are never short of 20°C. Since my immobile and sticky beginnings, I have progressed to sleeping comfortably with only a ceiling fan and appreciating the detoxifying process that is an evening run. Nevertheless, when the will to beat the heat is hanging by the cumbersome thread of my lab-appropriate clothes, air-conditioning is hardly scarce. Dehydrated and weary, I still managed to make some new friends, some of which have migrated here all the way from Malaysia in a rare swarming.

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Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah and a Malaysian giant moth. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah selfie and a rare Malaysian giant moths. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Like other city-states I have visited, including Monaco, Vatican City and, debatably, Dubai, Singapore has an ultra-modern appeal attributed to its post-independence booming economy. Not even hiked up registration, taxes and insurance can prevent the Maseratis from flying in the face of minimalistic religious roots. Gardens by the Bay, near the man-made stretch of land carrying famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, houses a grove of “super trees” that capture solar energy to put on an evening light show! Even campus is riddled with luxuries; rooftop infinity pools, free shuttles, terrace restaurants etc. In what I can only assume is an attempt to preserve these landscapes, there are strict laws prohibiting littering, chewing gum, eating on public transit, and even not flushing the toilet. I was greeted by my first vacant stare from a local Singaporean when I asked for a napkin with my meal. I have yet to see a napkin in this country.

Super Tree Grove

Super Tree Grove

Speaking of meals… My supervisor and new-found friends (not the animal kind) have been very helpful in feeding me and stoking my will to try Singaporean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine like kway teow, laksa, kaya coconut jam, chicken-rice, and stingray! Despite finding the first actual use for my tongue scraper after eating my first mouth-full of chili peppers, I am now head over bowels in love with sambal chili. I have also had my fill of exotic tropical fruits and fruit juices, like the notoriously potent durian, whose smell renders it banned from many public places.

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left);  sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left); sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Once, after I extinguished my tongue with some grass jelly, washed my hands, and tossed my chewing gum, I ventured out for a night on one of Singapore’s lavish rooftop nightclubs. With $30SGD entry and only $50SGD per alcoholic beverage, you’d be a fool to stay home!

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

Stay tuned to find out how I almost met my future spouse on a dragon boat, climbed my arms off at Asia’s largest rock climbing gym and planned a trip to the location where ‘The Beach’ was filmed!