Mad dogs and Englishmen. And me.

What is most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections.

Michael Pollan

The gate to the Hindu temple grounds was locked, and had a sign on it warning off non-believers. From my vantage, I could see a small corner of the main temple building, which sat on Bukit Gasing’s peak, on a point overlooking the jungle – and its elaborate, colourful design hinted at wonders within. There was no getting closer to get a better look, though. Even a walk along the outer wall was impossible, the only path being closed off by fences.

Clearly, the temple wasn’t the main attraction for hikers here – and it wasn’t immediately obvious what was. The way forward was blocked. To my right there was a cliff; to my left, some fairly uninviting jungle. The only way forward, in fact, was backward, down the road the cab had used to bring me here, and I already knew there was nothing particularly interesting about that. Still, I had no choice.

It occurred to me that I could have taken a minute to do some research before heading out, but I had made the decision to go on this hike on a whim. After lunch, and some prompting by Bonnie Lee over Skype, I had realized that I needed to take a few hours off. Between work and things 222, I had stared at my computer solidly, day and night, seven days a week for more weeks than made sense – and I knew there was some hiking to be done on Bukit Gasing. So I headed down to the main road without much thought, and grabbed a cab.

The cab driver had no idea where Bukit Gasing was, let alone any hiking trails, but after asking a few other drivers, he had whisked me here, up the road I was now walking back down. At least I wasn’t staring at the computer – and it was a beautiful, sunny day, on a road that offered a view of a huge mosque with a sprawling mess of city spreading out from it in every direction.

Still, I had come here for a hike, and so when I saw a gap in the trees, I decided to step through it and into the jungle. If all I was destined to do was walk down a hill today, then I figured I may as well do it surrounded by nature. I was immediately rewarded with the sight of a couple of macaques busily foraging. The one closer to me stared me down, and made a noise that I’m sure he thought was threatening, but which only managed to be cute. I steered away from him to let him get on with his day, and started my descent into what I had thought of as a jungle, but which the macaques (it now occurred to me) probably thought of as a big salad.

A cousin of the troupe I saw on Bukit Gasing, who I met in Batu Caves

The way quickly got steep, and it was at times a bit hard to get my footing, which made for a clumsy but controlled descent – and one that was noisy enough to scare off any and all creatures of the woods. Whenever I stopped to take in my surroundings, I could hear frantic activity about hundred yards ahead, as macaques crashed through the leaves to escape from the new guy in the neighbourhood.

One big salad

I came to a level clearing, and as I walked across it, casually wondering where I was, a sudden rush of sound and motion gave me a start. The dirt just ahead of me seemed to come alive, and sprinted away with a rapid series loud thumps. Whatever it was came to a stop just as suddenly, and as I got closer to take a look, I saw that it was a lizard (a monitor lizard, I now know) – at least two feet long – and it struck me that I had no idea what lived in this little piece of jungle. Did these particular lizards bite? Were there snakes? I didn’t have a clue, and hadn’t done an ounce of research, though it was clear to me now that the salad I inhabited wasn’t purely vegetarian, and I wasn’t 100% certain where I sat on the local food chain. Yet here I was, on a little used path, staring at a medium-sized carnivore staring at me, with a way to go (I guessed) and no easy way back. I reminded myself that I should plan a bit better next time, and moved along giving my new friend a wide berth.

Dragonfly

For the next fifteen minutes or so, I moved down the hill a bit more cautiously, and paying a bit more attention to the shadows. I don’t know if there are snakes on Bukit Gasing, but I do know that something brown with yellow stripes that might be a snake lurks there … as do some very cute little mammals that look like squirrels with funky haircuts. And there are dragonflies, beautiful red and burgundy ones – a small cluster of which swarmed around me when my jungle path finally met up with a real hiking trail.

The real trail was beautiful and wide. I could see the way back to the road from where I was, but decided to explore the more manicured part of Bukit Gasing while I was there, even though I was a bit thirsty by then. I made a mental note to bring water on my next impromptu hike in the tropics.

I stuck to the flat paths just to get a feel for the place, and was about to turn around and head home, when I met a sweat-drenched couple coming in the other direction. They mentioned that they had gotten lost in the paths ahead, and for a second I considered turning back. Then they mentioned that there was a river ahead, and that they had followed a steep path on the right after that. This had led them to some abandoned homes, and a very spooky ancient deity.

Well, the universe doesn’t have to ask me twice, and the wisdom of turning around suddenly evaporated.

Jungle mushroomsSo off I went to find the river and the path and the spooky deity. The river I found soon enough (the water was brown and undrinkable), along with some very funky looking mushrooms (which at this point were looking quite tasty), and I chose one of the steep paths on the right. And up I went. And up. And up.

The jungle eventually gave way to a steep escarpment, which I clambered up, until I came to a wall – a very familiar looking wall, with a Hindu temple behind it, only now I was on the wrong side of the point. Rather than climb down the escarpment (which seemed a bit treacherous) I followed a narrow path along the wall out to the point, and back to the side I had come from, hoping I would see a way through to the road (though suspecting there was none that didn’t involve pole vaulting).

And this is where I lucked out … there was a gap in the wall that I could step through, and suddenly I was where only the faithful could go, locked into rather than out of the temple grounds. I was tempted to get a closer look at the temple, but there was a gatekeeper nearby, who, when I explained how I had accidentally found my way in, was only too happy to let me out.

And so there I stood again, outside the gate, back where I had started. Drenched in sweat. In 100 degree weather, I would later learn – something that would have made sense to check before I headed out.

I found another path into the salad, and headed down the mountain again. By now, I was a bit peckish, and parched – and it seemed ironic to me that I felt this way in what was essentially a giant buffet. Edible greens, fruits, nuts, mushrooms and roots were all around me, not to mention bugs and meat in various forms – yet I had no way to know what was edible and what was not. I didn’t have the basic sense not to starve in the middle of a buffet. I was dumber than even the bugs here, who had figured out that I was food hours ago.

Note to self: the next time you go to the jungle, bring bug spray.

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Food waste in Singapore

According to the UN study quoted in the first entry on this blog, consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia throw away an average of 13 to 24 pounds of food a year – which, compared to the 210 to 250 pounds of food the average North American or European consumer throws away each year, is amazing.

As I was in Singapore in March, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do a little research into food waste there. The first thing I wanted to figure out was if Singapore, with the (by far) highest GDP per capita in Southeast Asia, was typical for the region when it comes to food waste. I wasn’t able to find any rigorous studies on household food waste per capita. What I did find was a two-week study of 150 families that found that the average household food waste per consumer was about 7 pounds a year. Given the methodology, my suspicion is that that estimate is a little low – but probably the right order of magnitude, so very much in line with the rest of Southeast Asia. And one thing is certain: with total food waste (commercial and household) coming in at 570 million kilograms per year (or 248 pounds per person), there’s no question that household food waste is significantly lower than in the US, Canada or Europe.

So how to people manage to waste so much less? I had a few conversations with locals and expats in Singapore to try to tease that out.

South Indian curry

One big reason has to do with transportation. Owning a car in Singapore is expensive. There is a registration fee of 1000 SGD – except the first time a car is registered, when that fee is 150% of the car’s value. There is an import duty of 41% on cars. There are road taxes, and extra fees if you drive your car on busy roads during rush hour (tallied automatically, thanks to transponders installed in all cars). And those are just the big ticket items. The good news is that there is a great, reasonably priced, countrywide metro and bus system, and most people (for obvious reasons) use that for daily travel. So what does that have to do with food waste? Well, a lot. For one thing, it means that food markets have sprouted pretty much in walking distance of everywhere. People tend to go to local stores, and the fact that they have to lug whatever they buy home in 90 degree humid weather encourages them to buy only what they need for the next day or two – something that naturally leads to better planning and less waste.

Typical hawker center

Another factor keeping household waste low is hawker centers. These open air eateries are everywhere, and house multiple food stalls featuring good, cheap fare. You can eat well for less than 5 Singapore dollars (less than the cost of cooking at home) – and most people I asked said that they ate dinner out at least three times a week. That certainly reduces food waste in homes – but what about restaurant waste? I suspect that is small relative to restaurants in the US. The hawker portions are smaller than those in US restaurants, and so a lot less gets left on plates – and each hawker stall makes a limited number of dishes with a limited number of ingredients, and keeps only a small amount of inventory on hand, which reduces waste due to spoilage.

Nothing earth shattering here, but it does suggest a couple of good practices that anyone can implement to reduce food waste, no matter where they live:

  1. Only buy what you need – plan!
  2. Finish what you buy – avoid leftovers or eat them.

Those things are easier said than done in an environment that makes it easy to waste (the US, for example, has 5 times more cars per capita than Singapore, cheap groceries and huge restaurant portions) – but they can make a huge difference (less than 25 pounds of wasted food vs. more than 200 pounds of wasted food).