Tuesday, December 23, 2008

summer travels

Singapore 1: July 15 - the rest of the story at www.xanga.com/rosemee1

July 13, 2008

The attendants at the counter of Korean Air are all young, slim, and …Korean. “Try Korean Air, and compare it to Singapore Air. You will like us.” We go in the direction opposite our International gate to get a Mexican burrito. When we get to Gate S10, most of the clients are Asian and the smell of kimchee is already drifting through the lounge.

On each seat of the coach section in the plane is a purple blanket, a headset, and an aqua zippered passport bag with aqua socks, aqua lanyard, and a plastic aqua toothbrush/paste set. The flight attendants settle us into our seats with smiles and greetings so warm they might be relatives happy to see us leaving after a month together.

The little kids, barefoot and dressed in PJs, chatter away and hop up and down the aisles. After beverages and a movie, the attendants come with supper. Beef or Korean food. W and I choose Korean: Bibimbap. The “directions on how to make Bibimbap” are in English, Japanese, and Korean. Complete with pictures, they say, 1) Please put the steamed rice into the “Bibimbap” bowl. 2) Add hot pepper paste. 3) Add sesame oil. 4) Mix the “Bibimbap” together. 5) Enjoy the “Bibmbap with side dish (kimchee = pickled cabbage) and soup (Seafood Soup).

The bowl of rice, vegetables, paste, and sesame oil tastes great. We have real, heavy stainless steel forks and spoons. The attendants are at the ready. The green tea is unlike the Japanese tea we’re used to, more savory than sweet. The toddler across the way stinks. Her diaper is full for a few hours. At least she’s cheerful as she kicks the seat of the woman in front of her. We watch a few movies, take a sleeping pill, and doze through the flight. The most interesting documentary is on global warming, with graphs tracing CO2 emissions and warming. No relation between statistics, according to top scientists who have quit global weather groups (and been blacklisted for not agreeing with the status quo. They call the CO2 and weather relationship a purely political agenda to keep poor nations from burning coal and oil resources in their area. On the other hand, meteorologists can show clear patterns of sun-cycle warming. They chart the last medieval “global warming,” when most of Europe’s architectural breakthroughs happened: the magnificent cathedrals were built during a “global warming” period, before a mini “ice age” of cooling like was predicted recently… in the 1970s. The docudrama insists, “Look at all the evidence. There is NO scientific relationship between global warming and CO2 produced by human technology or other factors. This is purely a non-scientific agenda driven by environmentalists (radicals who needed a cause after the Cold War and the fall of communism), politicians, and scientists who need an urgent issue to pursue research grants.” Makes me think about all the hype from industries dependent on a CO2/ panic: compact fluorescent lights, low-emissions technology, etc.

Breakfast is pasta with cheese, a crunchy stem of steamed broccoli, with a sweet cake on the side. Tea is Lipton Yellow Label. We take off early at 2.45, and our flight is expected to be ten and a half hours, at which time it will be around 5:50pm, tomorrow.

A stiff tailwind blows us into Incheon Airport, Seoul, at 5:10. The slight waft of sauerkraut (ok, kimchee) permeates the airport. We are herded through the security gate just down the hall from our arrival gate. A young man with a nametag of “Trainee Lee” pushes an older woman in a wheelchair. She catches up and goes through the screening ahead of us. We notice that many older Indian women are in wheelchairs. The grannies walk to the chair and sit down, getting pushed to the front of every line, arriving first on the plane, along with entire family groups.

Security is cursory. Shoes on. Jackets and sweaters on. Laptop out of the case into the plastic bin, as usual.

At the transfer desk near our gate, three young women in tan-colored, viscose knit suits – skirted and short-sleeved – fuss to book our seats on Singapore Air, arranging for our luggage to arrive in Singapore with us. So far, all women connect with Asian airlines (from Seattle through Seoul) have long hair pulled up and back, bunned in decorative nets or cleanly curved and looped. There is always a ribbon pinned at the back of the head. The Korean Air hostesses had pale teal or cream ribbons, 6” points jutting sideways and shaped like the “Thinking of our troops” ribbons on SUVs back home. The transfer desk girls have black Christmas packet ribbon, knotted as meticulously as the tan scarves leaning to the right on their slim necks.

Everyone Korean seems to have a uniform: chefs at the food court wear 10” round cook cylinders on their heads. The airport is clean, spare, modern, and spacious. Dark narrow-plant wood floors anchor the metal struts beams holding up a grey-white sloping ceiling. Four brown vinyl seats curve around cream stitching, Corian faux-granite tables on each end. People lie sleeping across the benches. W drifts through the shops as I type. The terminal feels muggy and warm. It is comfortable, the air thick as though the airport is covered in a loosely knit cloud. Planes come and go, but there is no apparent bustle or haste. Walkways and elevators start when people step on them, moving so slowly through the terminal that it is faster to walk alongside. Numerous free internet sites dot the concourses. I snooze while W rubs my feet, and then it’s time for the final leg to Singapore.

We have less leg room, but the TV screens are bigger, and the airline has remembered that I want vegetarian food. The Indian pure veg includes dal, rice, curried tofu, and cut melon. Two movies and a nap later, it is near 1am Singapore time, and we have landed at Changi Airport.

As we step into the newly opened Terminal 3, the calm and order of Singapore is obvious: long stretches of free space are punctuated by tan, black and grey swirled carpet. Granite floors in geometric patterns of black and grey glide underfoot through an abundance of passport checklines. We move quickly through the lines.

Free luggage carts are being lined up for easy access by an airport valet. Tabbi, the college’s office manager who has met professors at the airport for at the past 15 years since W has been coming here, is waiting as we sling our luggage off the carrousel and onto the carts. Two simple options for customs reflect Singapore’s British heritage. The signs are the same as in London: all passengers are flowing under the green lettering for “Nothing to Declare,” and an empty area waits under the red sign further away… for those with “Goods to Declare.”

Tabbi escorts us to the curb, where an attendant points us to the next taxi. T gives us basic information as we drive. We’ll be staying near the Tampinese metro station in an executive condo. Yes, we’re in a different condo again this time, but it’s convenient—only two bus stops away from where we can catch the trains that link Singapore.

Tabbi unlocks the condo, which has an ornate iron gate in front of the main door. “This lock is only for those inside,” she find the key on the dining table by the door and a lock that slips through the outer gate. “Use for ventilation when you are home. You must share the key, but here is another for the front door. And here is an MRT (rapid transit) pass.” She is efficient. W signs for a cash advance as she hands over money to tide us over for a few days. She points to grocery bags with basics: some melons, cereal and other odds and ends. She opens the overflowing fridge to point to soymilk and yoghurt drink she has purchased. Then she takes us to another smaller fridge where we can store any acquistions: “This one maybe works, maybe not. We just got another bigger one because sometime it stops.” It’s obvious tenants without an eye for tidiness use the kitchen. Used teabags, food cartons, and a messy countertop get our passing glance.

A young fellow named Andy walks downstairs, even though it’s close to 2am. “Been studying,” he mumbles. He teaches 1 and 2 Corinthians.

“He is living in the smaller bedroom and his father is here. You have the larger room. And other professor from your school (Steve Candle) is here as well. He is teaching here one more week.” She leads us up a flight of steps to the master bedroom, which has a recently-used ensuite bath. Drops of water cling to the glass of the shower. W and Andy bring our luggage up. After giving us a quick tour of the apartment, Tabbi waves good-bye. The Lindt chocolate W has brought for her brings a smile and, “May I give this to Andy?” She’s not a chocolate fan, which is probably why she is as slim as a youngster.

In the morning, the realities of the tropics begin to sneak in. There is only one tap in the sink and kitchen rather than hot and cold. For showers, a switch on the water heater outside the bathroom is flipped to produce hot water. Although we didn’t sleep until 4am, we’re awake by 7. A tentative knock on the door at 8 is the Tuesday maid. She starts the laundry, mopping counters, floors, and other surfaces between loads of bedding and towels.

We head out to get something to eat. Every smell tantalizes our hunger. Salted sardines and stir-fried fish, steaming noodles of every sort, vegetables and fruits heaped in tidy piles behind glass-fronted counters. Even durian, which looks like a football with pointed pyramids sticking out over its green skin, smells great as a grocer scrubs dirt off each one, picking them out of woven grass barrels in front of his shop. We order two types of noodles topped with an egg and vegetables (lady-fingers or okra for me, salty garlic longbeans or green beans for both). W also gets some indistinguishable meat (BBQ pork?) as a side. We are stuffed: I can’t finish mine. Including tea tarik (with evaporated milk) for W and plain sweetened for me, we both eat for about four dollars.

An old man stops to say hello, “I am … Fox,” (I miss his first name). He asks why Americans are wandering around Tampinese. He wonders if we are lost, chats about his extended family who opened the Hugo Boss store on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood, tells us about his visit to the US, and points us in the direction of a market we used to frequent on our last trip. It’s about a mile away, not bad except for the exhausting heat. It is overcast, but my face and neck are burning from a reaction to my Neutrogena 70SPF lotion. W and I share a lime juice and drink a bubble tea along the way (green apple is W’s favorite; blueberry is mine). People stare at us white foreigners, sometimes nodding in a friendly way.

I need to get some soap for showers. In the pharmacy, I read the blurb on an empty box of $105 cream, guaranteed to prevent aging and “tested by 9 volunteers,” according to the label. You have to get the actual crème behind the counter. Must be more crime than before if they’re worried about shoplifting.

Clumps of green bananas, papayas, and coconuts hang in the trees beside the road, where traffic whizzes by in a properly “left-sided” British way. Huge drainage spillways line the main roads to siphon rainfall back to the ocean. As the preschools empty at noon, grandparents cycle by with one or two grandchildren perched on child seats in front or back of the bikes. Schools have uniforms, so a chubby little fellow encased in a blue shirt and darker blue shorts tucks his feet up for the ride. A group of little girls pass us, chattering away with their green skirts swaying under crisp white blouses.

We pick up a notebook so I can keep track of details – it is easy to forget all the curiosities of being here. We pop into a travel agent to see what’s available. We were going to go to Bali, but everyone says it is completely commercialized. We’d prefer a place to rest and study. The travel agent recommends an island close to Singapore, “Here my family and I go. You will like this recommendation very much.”

Our flat is only eight storeys up, so I persuade W to take the stairs with me instead of the elevator. His feet are aching with old blisters from a trip in June. He is not impressed by the climb, but I’ll probably always take the stairs. Last visit we were on the eleventh floor; I usually tired about floor nine, so this feels doable, even on the first day.

We cool off in our room with the air-con set to about 80o before Tabbi arrives to help us plan a few days of getaway. She hangs around for an hour or two, eats a melon with us, and heads back to the office.

One of our flat-mates tells us any bus can get us to the Tampinese Mall. But we decide to walk… and it takes us seven minutes because it’s just a few blocks away. W says, “Go anywhere, I don’t have anything I’m looking for so I’ll follow you.” We walk around each floor, reacquainting ourselves with the old and finding new shops. The mall feature for the week is Japanese treats – candy, cookies, salted plums, chocolates, Poky varieties, and nuts. Junior high and high school students swarm the mall in groups, wearing tan shorts and white shirts or green-collared white shirts and skirts or pure whites, always grounded with clean white sneakers. They touch and pick up items, giggle, and cruise the mall in groups.

I’ve been looking forward to revisiting an aquarium / terrarium shop in the lower level of the Tampinese Mall. The owner has an eye for placement of moss, ferns, and aquatic plants. The top two-thirds of the big 3X3X3’ setup has a little waterfall plunging over a mossy branch. Water drips off the back rock wall and a fog machine swooshes a cloud over the surface of the water. The bottom third is an aquarium, thickly planted and populated with schools of tiny darting fish. Other planted tanks are just as lovely, only not as overwhelming to the eyes.

We check out a few supermarkets in the mall, but W can’t find the tea powder he’s looking for: we might have to get it in Malaysia. We bring home peach tea powder and a mulberry/ chrysanthemum / plum concoction that’s a bit bitter but not too bad. On the back side of the MRT station, after we fill up our cash balance for our trip tomorrow, we eat rice with curry sauce, peppered fish (me), barbequed fish (W), and lovely deep-green vegetables. (2 veg and 1 meat: $3 each.) Delicious!

To avoid the drizzling sky on our way back, we walk under apartment complexes and I take another crack at the stairs. My calves are aching when I get to the room. We barely beat Tabbi home. She’s called that she’s on her way to the flat with tomorrow’s travel arrangements: her cousin is a travel agent and has done the work for us. We are going to Batam, an Indonesian island less than an hour by ferry. We’ll have to be at Harbor Center station (about an hour away by train and bus) at 7.45am tomorrow. The ferry leaves at 8.30 or so and there will be a few complicated money exchanges with the man who is supposed to meet us.

“You will be expected to tip the tour guide. But when you get to the island, don’t tip the him $4 the first day,” Tabbi warns. “Then he will expect more the next day. Give him $2 day one and $2 day two. He will give the driver $1 and keep $1 for himself.” We have set up a two-night, three day respite.

We have a quick chat with Steve, who is doing his version of “cooking therapy” in the kitchen, making spaghetti with tomato sauce. He remarks on the eager learning of the students in his Pastoral Theology class.

While W does his trip calculations (what time DO we have to get up?), I relax and write. Sweat is dripping off our bodies, the sky looks a little lighter than it did before supper, and we’ll be getting to sleep early

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