The Haze

The Haze. It sounds like something from a horror story about a vile, airborne… uh… haze that relentlessly consumes all in its path in a big… uh… puff of…. um… stuff….?

But it’s nothing other-worldly. It is a yearly occurrence in Singapore. Forest clearing on the Indonesian island of Sumatra results in thick clouds of smoke smothering Singapore and Malaysia. It is such a regular event that it has its own name but this year is being hailed as the worst since 1997 with extremely thick smoke blanketing the entire island for several days in a row now. The Haze might even hang around for weeks.

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At the very least, it makes walking down the street an unpleasant experience. At worst, it makes it a complete and utter health hazard. As I type this, the pollutant index in Singapore is apparently at 190 which is astronomically high. Anything over 100 is considered unhealthy. The view from our apartment is gone. All I can see are the lights from windows that are within a few hundred metres of us but the buildings have disappeared into the grey of The Haze. It’s like being trapped in one of those smoking rooms in an airport. I’ve had a dry throat and nose for days now.

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Paid a fortune for a room at Marina Bay Sands; might as well be locked in a small room with Cheech and Chong. If I were this guy, I wouldn’t bother raising my face out of the water to breathe.

There’s always a little back and forth between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia about it.  Singaporean officials complain about Indonesians and their insane need to clear huge sections of rainforest with a match and a can of petrol. Right now, Indonesians are claiming that businesses owned by Singaporeans are responsible. All jokes aside, the mere thought of so much rainforest being burned down is awful.

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The good thing about the haze is that if you go on a date and it works out, you won’t need to light up a smoke afterwards. Just step outside, breathe in deeply and you’re sorted (get dressed first).

At the moment, going outside for a cigarette is an awful, tear-inducing experience. Someone commented to me today that it shouldn’t really matter to me, seeing as I’m smoking anyway. That’s like saying that if you go to the toilet and the person before you hasn’t flushed, it won’t bother you because you’re just going to do your business anyway. That is not how it works, dear reader. That is not even close to how it works.

I didn’t notice it last year but it is unbearable this year. Singapore isn’t the prettiest place to be right now. If you’re planning on coming this way soon, pack an oxygen tank, a mask and wear your medic-alert bracelet. You’ll need them.

Update: PSI (pollutants index) has hit 290 at 9.30pm here in Singapore. It is literally unhealthy to stand outside.

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What golf is really all about: A hacker’s perspective

Golf in Singapore is expensive. For the cost of four rounds at most places here, you could buy a set of clubs. Literally. That’s why many golfers here – both good ones and hackers (not-so-good ones) – opt for cheaper rounds in Johor Baru, which is just over the other side of the Malaysian border, or on the Indonesian islands of Bintan and Batam which are both less than an hour away on a ferry. For around half the price of a round of golf in Singapore, you get a ferry ticket to Batam or Bintan, transfers to and from the ferry terminal and caddies who know their greens in the same intimate way that fifteen year old girls know the lyrics to all of Justin Bieber’s songs.

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This weekend I played golf at Batam’s Tering Bay GC with my mate Duncan. We’re not exactly threatening to grab the PGA Tour by the neck to shake loose a swag of trophies but we enjoy playing. And that’s what golf’s really about: the chance to play a sport you love with your mates, to get a little competitive and to drink copious amounts of beer without having your girlfriend constantly saying “Another one? How will you post about this on your blog if you don’t remember any of it?”

Although it’ll never host a PGA tour event, Tering Bay GC is a nice course. It doesn’t have many of the elevation changes that I personally think make a golf course a little more interesting but the layout is very polite and courteous to hackers like me. Its wide fairways forgive wayward shots, its slow greens won’t punish you heavily for putting a little too much pepper on your putts and it’s not entirely shrouded in thick, ball-hungry jungle like some of the other courses on Batam and Bintan.

IMG_5494We decided on a matchplay format to determine who would be crowned Best Player Within A Fifty Metre Radius. Matchplay is great padding for the egos of not-so-great golfers because you can shoot seven on a par three and still have a chance of winning the hole.

My playing partner, Duncan, was hitting the ball well but he was frustrated. He was spending more time in the sand than the cast of Baywatch. His ball found bunker after bunker and, understandably, it was getting to him.

Jackfruit

Jackfruit growing on the course. The flora and fauna on Indonesian courses is, at the very least,  interesting. At worst, it’s fanged and possibly poisonous.

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Friendly local kids from villages bordering the course were cheering us on with cries of “Bagus!” (“Good!”) when we’d hit a decent shot. Lesser efforts were met with giggles.

Swearing like a Scotsman – because he is a Scotsman and that’s the only way Scotsmen know how to swear – he was cursing the sport of golf from top to tail. He angrily teed up his ball at the par-three sixteenth after a poor performance on the fifteenth. He swung and connected well but as it soared towards the green, it veered just a little too far left and found a greenside bunker. He was about twenty five feet from the hole and chest-deep in the sand trap. Frustrated and looking forward to beers after the round, I think he stopped caring what happened.  I, on the other hand, was only trailing by a hole and saw my chance to wrench victory from his sweaty grasp.

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The local wildlife. Seeing monitor lizards – much bigger than this cute little thing, mind you – is pretty standard on golf courses in the region.

I stopped watching him as I thought about my shot. ‘I’ve got this hole’, I thought to myself. I was studying the green closely when he swung and fired it out of the bunker. I looked up to see the ball snaking its way towards the general vicinity of the hole.  “Nice shot,” I said to him as the ball edged closer to the hole. Seeing that it was actually going to end up very close to the hole, I repeated myself, this time with verve. “Nice shot!”

Then it trickled into the hole. Duncan, that #$%@.

It was an amazing shot, not least of all because I know he was in the throes of a palpable rage and that’s when it’s toughest to perform well.

Was he happy? See for yourself:

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High fives, hugs, gleeful swearing and a huge swig of beer from our cans followed. And that’s what golf is really, really about: beer and swearing. It was beautiful.

Bintang Beer.

Bintangs, fresh from the cooler. On a hot Indonesian afternoon, they’re absolute gold.

We were in pretty good spirits and with reason. Cans of Bintang are three for $12 there (a pint costs $18 in Singapore), we had a good round of golf on a sunny Sunday at a nice course in Indonesia and, despite our complete lack of skill, each of us had a handful of the type of shots that give you a glimpse of what it would be like if you actually bothered to practice. And that’s what golf’s actually really, really about: eyeing that next level of performance and striving for it.

If you’re in Singapore and keen for a round of golf, Batam, Bintan and Johor Baru are definitely worth checking out, not only for the price but for the range of courses on offer.

But don’t play with Duncan. He’s likely to pull another shot like that out of his #$%@ and when he does, he will hug you, soaking you in litres of sweat.

Me? Dirty on that lucky #$%@? Can’t imagine what would make anyone think that. And that’s what golf’s really, really, really all about: hating your mates for having beaten you despite their ability to find nearly every bloody bunker on the course. Really.

Golf, too many mind and three important life lessons

This post isn’t entirely about golf. I guess golf is just the medium through which I learned three very valuable lessons last weekend. So even if you’re not an avid golfer, read on.

I love playing golf. I also hate playing golf. Anyone who has stuck with it for any amount of time will know what I’m talking about. When you’re not playing, you’re looking forward to your next round eagerly. And when you’re finally playing again and ready to tee off on the first hole, you’re excited. Then you hit your first shot.

You then spend the next four hours swearing crassly enough to make Gordon Ramsey blush as you angrily hack your way from hole to hole, cursing those masochistic Scots for having created what is without doubt the most frustrating pastime in the history of man. Afterwards, you hit the clubhouse and enthusiastically plan your next round over a few beers. Sounds crazy but golf is hard so all you need are one or two good shots, buried like gold nuggets somewhere beneath a mountain of dismal efforts, to bring you back again.

My girlfriend spoiled me on my birthday last weekend with a night at the Banyan Tree resort on Bintan Island, a one-hour ferry ride from Singapore. We had an opulent little villa with a spectacular view.

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Yes, that’s a plunge pool on our deck. Banyan Tree’s villas are awesome.

As if that wasn’t enough, my amazing woman went one step further, organizing a round of golf at Ria Bintan, my favourite course and the scene of my undie-soiling encounter with a crazed, hungry monkey. It’s an award-winning course, challenging but immaculately kept and very easy on the optic nerve.

The view from the club house.

The stunning view from Ria Bintan’s club house. Golf courses are always nice places. This one is gorgeous.

Banyan Tree has its own course called Laguna Bintan. When we arrived, my girlfriend suggested I play a practice round of nine holes there before hitting Ria Bintan the next day. What a chick…

Quick lesson for non-golfers: par is the number of shots a good player should be able to finish a hole in. A bogey is one shot over par. Finish a par-five hole in five shots and you’ve shot par. Finish it in six and it’s a bogey.

The round at Laguna was uneventful until the sixth hole, a par five. I’d made it two hundred metres up the fairway after three terrible shots. I should’ve made that distance on my first shot. My fourth shot hit a tree branch hanging over the fairway and ricocheted into the jungle. Feeling a sudden urge to snap every club in my bag, I figured I should relax and concentrate on the task at hand. I put my cigarette out in my empty beer can and took my next shot. The ball, disgusted by my pathetic swing, traveled fifteen metres before refusing to move any further. Feeling a sudden urge to snap every club in someone else’s bag, I grabbed my cold beer and took a nice, long swig to calm me down. It wasn’t until I felt the cigarette butt sloshing around in my mouth that I realized that I’d put it in my full can, not the empty one. Spitting Tiger beer and a Dunhill butt onto the middle of the fairway, I spouted every swear word in my lexicon. I may have even made up a few (‘funt’ is going to catch on, trust me). I poured the remainder of my beer into the grass, one of the only two I had. I could taste cigarette butt. I wasn’t exactly happy. I ended up scoring a ten on that hole. If you’re unfamiliar with golf, a score of ten on one hole is as bad as it gets. At this point, I had pretty much had it. “Funt it,” I thought, “stop worrying and have some fun.”

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Some holes at Ria Bintan are bordered by beaches and the ocean views are spectacular.

On the very next hole, my fourth shot was an eight foot putt which went in for par. Cheering!

I remembered to stay positive the next day at Ria Bintan. I shot a ten on the first hole, a tricky par five. Determined not to let the rest of my round fall apart, I got onto the next tee and thought of that line in The Last Samurai where Tom Cruise’s character, Captain Algren, was being beaten by his opponent when practicing his sword technique. Nobutada, the young samurai, gave him some advice, telling him “Too many mind. Mind the sword, mind the people watch, mind enemy. Too many mind… No mind.” So I cleared my head. “No mind,” I told myself. I had a zen moment: I visualized my first shot reaching the green 135 metres away. I pictured myself making two decent putts for par. I pictured a quiet, proud fist pump before moving onto the next hole. And that’s exactly what I did.

No mind... no mind....

No mind… no mind….

After that par, I shot four bogeys in a row which, for non-golfers, means one shot over par. To good golfers, that might sound terrible but for a hacker like me, it’s pretty good. I was on a roll. I finished the front nine with a score of 53, the best round I’d played in a long time. It’s not a score that good players aspire to but Ria Bintan is a tough course and if not for that score of ten on the first hole, I could’ve shot 50 instead of 53. I was thinking positively. Maybe I’m not the worst player ever, I told myself.

The green at the 8th hole is surrounded by ocean. Sounds nice, but overshoot it and you’ll suffer a eunuch’s fate: balls will be lost.

The player behind me caught up to me at the tenth hole so I invited him to play with us. He was a great guy but as far as my performance goes, it was a bad move because for me, golf is like peeing: it’s harder when someone you don’t know well is watching.

From there, my game went downhill faster than a seven pound slab of double Gloucester cheese at Cooper’s Hill.

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Go, little seven pound slab of Double Gloucester Cheese at Cooper’s Hill! Go!

Still, the player – let’s call him Sean, mainly because that’s his real name – was a nice guy. Sean, my girlfriend and I got along really well and had an enjoyable round. And my fall from the dizzying heights of ‘not-the-worst-player-ever’ didn’t affect me much. I had quite a few good shots on the front nine and I was happy.

Besides, it was my birthday and my girlfriend gave me an amazing birthday present by taking us to Bintan and booking in the rounds of golf. I heard a saying the other day: “Happy people are not always grateful but grateful people are always happy”.

I was grateful for the three lessons I learnt that day:

1. I have an awesome girlfriend. I already knew that so I guess that lesson is for you, dear reader. The lesson I learned is that being grateful for her makes me happy to be with her every day.

2. Think positively and good things are more likely to happen. Shut out the unnecessary. No mind…

3. Dunhill sangrias (cigarette butts floating in beer) are to be avoided at all costs. They are funting funted.