Saturday, September 27, 2008

New Friends Around the Park

Despite it being a weekend, I woke up just before 6am this morning, and decided to leave the comfy bed to finish up Wify's application for passport renewal. She woke up slightly later and was confused for a moment whether she needed to come downstairs to prepare my breakfast, not realizing at first that it was a weekend. In both instances, it's a sign that age is catching up: getting or needing less sleep, and mind playing trick more often.

Anyway, we dropped by the Post office to mail the application package before 9am. Early birds, no queue. And overheard the lady at the counter remarking to a senior customer that we now need to work past 80, and extend the lifespan beyond that too, an allusion to the anticipated hard times now and ahead as portended by the collapse of Washington Mutual (WaMu), hot in the heels of the meltdown of investment giants Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, all notable victims of the subprime crisis.

While there, Wify spotted a display of the Flags of Our Nation series of stamp, and bought one coil of 50 comprising the first series of ten designs. According to the USPS website, there will be 6 series in all, two series to be issued per year until 2010. So if you are a stamp collecting enthusiast, or philatelist, keep a lookout.
The ten designs in the first series of Flags of Our Nation stamps.

Our mission accomplished, we headed for Lettuce Lake Park to retrace our foot steps on the boardwalk made three weeks ago. The scene that greeted us was a welcome change, not only from the choke-full condition seen last time around, but also because we bumped into some new friends, as evidenced from the pictorial account that follows.

We parked next to a coach, and was greeted by a man in a kind of outdoor gear coming down the coach whether we were there to take part in the nature walk organized by Autubon Society. That was a first for us, but we respectfully declined since we have our spots where we would like to go, though I could sense that Wify seemed enthusiastic in taking up the offer, driven by the prospect of learning from an expert guide. Maybe next time.

I first bumped into this cute furly creature while it was standing, sentry-style, in the center of the pavement, viewing guardedly our approach. From a distance, I thought somebody left a brown bottle on the middle of the walkway, until it moved, when we got near. Yup, the mind is playing trick again!

Perfect reflection captured on film.

This relatively open water area is in full contrast to the meadow-like scene three weeks ago. The vagary of Nature.

We first saw this rarely seen birdie from the boardwalk on our way in one direction. Wify remarked that it's practicing mindfulness, staying motionless in this stance. On our return going in the opposite direction, our friend was still at it. But then we learned that it's a night heron, as informed by a learned fellow visitor, sweaty and all, the same guy who was running up and down the climb to the observation tower as a workout. Befitting their name, "these birds stand still at the water's edge and wait to ambush prey, mainly at night". Perhaps this one was going for a change of habit, or perhaps that was its resting pose.

This was affixed to the back of the coach we saw earlier. The blue bird at the top left is a Blue Jay, one that wify has painted.

Oh yes, Happy 10th birthday, Google, here amusing themselves with a special logo that spots a server rack.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Return to the Park

Lettuce Lake Park, that is, and more, adding another to our park hit list in the process. Due to a combination of being preoccupied (college football season has started) and inertia, we, or rather I, have not been having a walk at the park for a while now. Somehow I have managed to find excuses to postpone the walk, until two weeks ago (earlier on we did drop by the park, but it ended up as a drive through because of an unexpected drizzle).

It was a sunny morning, and we strode along the boardwalk, our usual route that skirts the river. This time, though, we managed to complete the loop due to some recent upgrading of the boardwalk (the second half was condoned off for repair on our previous trip).

We went up the observation tower, and met a lady standing next to a telescope (or was it a camera with a long zoom?) on a stand. The first thing we noticed on the surface of the river was the unusual abundance of floating plants, much like the water hyacinth back home. Then we were living in Muar, Johor and the town is just next to the Muar River, which debouches into the Straits of Malacca. These clusters of water hyacinth would move like floating islands up and down the river with the tide.

As an aside, water hyacinth can pose problems, primarily because of its fast growing ability. According to Wikipedia, “(w)hen not controlled, water hyacinth will cover lakes and ponds entirely; this dramatically impacts water flow, blocks sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants, and starves the water of oxygen, often leading to fish kills (or turtles). The plants also create a prime habitat for mosquitos, the classic vectors of disease, and a species of snail known to host a parasitic flatworm which causes schistosomiasis (snail fever).” That said, the same abundance ability can also be capitalized to provide “cattle food and in biogas production. Recently, they have also begun to be used in wastewater treatment,” the same source continues. I guess, as in most things in life, there is always a flip side. Here though, the floating plant phenomenon seems like a seasonal thing, thanks to the sub-tropical climate.

Anyway, back to the Park, and follow us through a pictorial tour seen though our eyes, or rather, camera lens. Our adventure on the park trail will resume at the end of this tour, recording today's feature.

The nearly "choked" stream.

A young bird roosting atop the floating aquatic plants, serving both as a foothold and fodder.

The many species of wild flowers next to the boardwalk.

The cluster of planted flowers at the entrance to the Park office.

A piggyback drinking fountain, the little one is for the dogs. How thoughtful!

I read about the Creek Trout Park, one of the Six separate parks making up the county owned Wilderness Park complex (previously, we have already been to two of these: Morris Bridge and Flatwoods Parks). That's where we were this morning. This too is equipped with a off-road biking track and walking trails, but we restricted our visit to just taking the short boardwalk that partly runs along the river bank and making a brief stop at the canoe launch site. Enjoy the sights that met our eyes.

The entrance sign beckons.

This was taken at the notice board located in the middle of car park featuring the continuous canoe route linking the various parks.

One of the many picnic shelters in the park. And a trail lies yonder.

A family canoe expedition.

Wify directed this shot, saying that the fallen branch, just touching the water surface, with a couple of sub-branches pointed skyward in an oblique way, constrasts with the multi-tiered tree canopy seen across the river.

Fair warning. I added the Gator-on-Bike shot cut from a shot of another signage on post because it looks cute. Go Gators, beating the Vols 30-6 today!

I counted more than 20 of these catfish-like fish lazing at the river bottom next to the canoe launch facility.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Playing Ping-pong, and the memory it evoked

While I have dabbled in different sports while in school, I would have to say the one that I'm most comfortable with, a direct result of having played it the longest, is table tennis, or Ping-pong, a term of Chinese origin but has since found its way into the English lexicon.

Back then, we had a table comparable to the size of a Ping-pong table in the veranda of the very first house that I grew up in. Everyday after school, I would be playing Ping-pong with kids from the neighborhood, uncoached. Left to our own devices, we would be just striking the ball all over the table, and outside as well, with wooden bats. Before long, we seemed to develop some kind of basic skills in serving, returning, and even smashing, when we were in Grade Four.

Then I was good enough to be in the elementary school's team, and upgraded myself to playing with rubber-surfaced bats (the popular Butterfly make as I recall). I had by then also learned some spin moves, but not the top spin though.
Those days in school, there was a burly guard wearing a turban who combed the school ground looking for outsiders whose actions were deemed disruptive to the school proceeding such as horse-playing in the hallway. I was in the morning session (because of insufficient classrooms, a school is normally divided into the morning and afternoon sessions with a different set of teachers) and often had to go back to school for the practice session in the afternoon. The Ping-pong table being in the Hall, flanked by classrooms on both sides, the players had no choice but to practice in the Hall. It was OK when our coach was there with us, a sign of official business. Sometimes, the coach would step way, and whether because he suffered from memory lapses, the guard would charge in, sending us running helter skelter for cover.

I continued my Ping-pong playing days in the Middle school (again representing the school) and High school (playing for the class at intramural level only for there were several nationally ranked players in NJC, the high school I attended in Singapore).

In university, I split time between table tennis and basketball, the court being just outside my 4th floor dorm window (I was in the 3rd Residential College in University of Malaya as a freshman). Usually I would play table tennis from 4.30pm to 5.30pm, then I would dash to the basketball court. I participated in the inter-floor Ping Pong tournament in 3rd College, ending up as runners-up, thanks to the rule that State and National players were not eligible to take part, for which there were 1 and 2, respectively.

I remember playing with Sung Poh Wah, the then #1 player in the country, but lost. It could have been a worse loss if not for the fact that he played with his left hand. He was a rightie and I, a leftie. In other words, his worse got the better of my better. But at least I got to play with the #1 guy in the country.

From my sophomore year onwards, I became an NHO (non-hostelite organization, meaning no more in the university housing). My Ping-pong playing days then came to a halt, and I was full-time on basketball since my house-mate and most of my course-mates played it.

When I started work at Muar, Johor, my first assignment, I reverted back to Ping-pong since there was a table at the executive covered car park, which became vacant when my boss left for the day. So we would unfold the table, and start banging away. I was the office champ, and represented the district Department at the State level sports meets. It was the same when I transferred to the headquarters at KL, playing after work and at the inter-state department meets.

When I first arrived at US as a working professional (I was here previously as a grad student) more than four years ago, I did not touch the Ping-pong bat until this year, for fifteen minutes, sparring with Tom to test out the newly acquired table for the Clearwater Chinese School. I was rusty, hitting the ball every other way but on the table. And hardly perspired.

Then Wify's friend, Linda, told us that she has just added a new Ping-pong table in her newly renovated house, the expanded space having created an exercise room big enough for that facility. So yesterday, we went over to her house, expecting to have a full workout (I have not exercised in a long while, save for the sporadic evening walks with Wify).

I put on my white sports shoes, complete with long white socks (Wify said I looked good in them), and seemed to appear overly eager when I arrived. While wify disappeared into the Music room with Linda, I checked out the workout room, a gleaming Ping-pong table under the cover of a transparent sheet. Yes, bats, both panholder and handshake, with rubber surface, and some white balls on the floor (I accidentally stepped on one and you know the result). The space seemed tight, but big enough for the game (also less space to run around to pick up balls, which may actually take up half of the playing time at our level. But the alternate body bending, stopping, and straightening took a toll on the body nonetheless).

I started playing with Linda, trading shots, mine often off the mark, an obvious sign of a long layoff. But with time, my form gradually returned. And I was able to smash a couple of times too. Then it was Aaron's turn, Aaron being Linda's younger son. He only started playing when the table first arrived at the house. So I gave him a few pointers.

Then Victor, Linda's hubby, continued the family rotation with me. All in all, I had a forty minutes workout, enjoying both the game, in between pantings, and the perspiration, the amount of which must have equaled the total amount prior to yesterday since I arrived in Tampa. I might have exaggerated that a bit, but I truly felt lighter.

The last session was between Linda and Wify. I must admit Wify's ability at Ping-pong caught me by surprise, which I ascribed to her grounding in badminton, her first game. She hardly let out any sweat, a testimony to her better-conditioned body achieved through constant moving around tending to the house and weekly aerobics, which she started several months back.

It was such a long lapse that I have almost forgotten about the sense of wellbeing after a rigorous exercise, the body toxins having exited along with the sweats, and the heart, aerobically exercised. It was such a good feeling that Wify and I are talking about making it a regular thing, say biweekly. Let's see how that pans out.

Image courtesy of the Google people at the occasion of the 29th Olympics held in China last month, a dragon returing a shot, symbolic of the Chinese prowess in Ping-pong.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Kaleidoscopic Asia: The Tea Route

[I would like to first apologize for my oversight in forgetting to bring my trusted digital cam along for the ride. So bear with me for a purely wordy escapade.]

In Malaysia, having high tea in the late afternoon has become a favorite pastime in cities as attested to by the many hotels offering High Tea Buffet. Apparently, this social setting is a British tradition and is not popular, almost non-existent even, in US. Of course high tea has become synonymous with a late afternoon gastronomic pursuit that has less to do with tea than an occasion to socialize. Nor is consuming tea restricted to that particular time of the day.

We are no connoisseurs of tea, but we do drink tea, more for its medicinal value since our preferred beverage has always been coffee, a habit cultivated from young for wify following her Mom's footstep. Me? I was more of a Coke addict, but have since dropped it several years ago when I learned that each can contains seven spoonful of sugar. That's a lot of sugar loading considering that I had that for every lunch and after every evening workout during those hot days in Malaysia.

Now I have resorted to tea, the green variety specifically, to go with my lunch. Then yesterday, wify suddenly had the urge to go for high tea. I remember reading about a tea lounge close to USF in the papers that I was reading while waiting for my car to be examined earlier in the week at the Toyota Service Center (yes, I have had an engine overheating problem again). Something that starts with a K.

Then I came across a mention of the same tea lounge in the Asian Trend Magazine that I picked up while grocery shopping at MD Oriental this Saturday. I found the magazine in the house, and proceeded to google the place. It's Kaleisia Tea Lounge on the east side of Fowler. The website, complete with menu and all, seemed inviting. (The logo is taken from the lounge's website.)

So that's where we headed yesterday, sometime around 5pm, knowing that it would close at 6pm on Sunday. CE was apprehensive initially, after hearing from me that the lounge is a favorite haunt for USF students as she does not enjoy crowded places. Maybe because it was the long weekend (today being Labor Day Holiday), we entered into a relatively quiet shop interior, unlike the crowd featured on the website, which was good. The left side of the wall is fronted by shelves showcasing tea pots and other paraphernalia in all shapes and sizes. Further in along the same side is the counter, with a smiling young gentleman standing behind.

Upon learning that this was our first visit, he pointed to the panel behind us (this would be the Wall of Tea comprising numerous glistening cans of tea numbering in the 100s featured on the website) for our tea selection. Wify surveyed the array of tea on display, and decided on Earl Grey and Georgia Peach. We also ordered the Asian Noodles and the Hummus-Avocado Wrap, two vegan dishes, and some cookies to go along with the tea.

Hung on the wall on both sides of the tea wall were the photographic exhibits featuring Angel He's photographs. While waiting for our orders, I ventured further into a settee area, which is, presumably, meant to provide a more intimate setting for patrons, and examined the book collection stacked against the left wall. I took out one, All the Tea in China (Kit Chow & Ione Kramer, China Books & Periodicals Inc., 1990, 187p), and retraced my steps to join my entourage.

Our orders came, we partook, me doing it while browsing through the book. The portions were small by normal standard, served on exquisitely shaped plates while the tea pots were emplaced on bamboo sheets spread on top of wooden supports. The tea smelled and tasted great, the vegan food scrumptious, and the cookies, a palate's delight.

Intrigued by the name of the lounge, we started to speculate as to its etymology. A native word in a foreign language? A combination of word parts, wify suggested? To solve the mystery, I confronted the young man who served us. Almost gleefully, he said it's a combination of kaleidoscope and Asia. That figures.

So our first visit to Kaleisia Tea Lounge turned out to be a refreshing experience, partially because of the less than normal weekend crowd, if it could qualify as a crowd at all during our timely visit. This first experience could almost rival the one that we have had with the Teapot Cafe back home, but only in terms of tea experience and the ambience, for a cafe obviously serves a much wider range of food selection than a lounge, as is the case here. However, in terms of the website design, my impression is the other way round, that of Kaleisia is decidedly much more appealing. CE also mentioned that she might bring her friends over for a taste of the delightful tea experience.