Monday, June 27, 2016

Return to Singapore

In 2006, Kevin and I lived in Singapore for five months when the marketing agency I worked for temporarily reassigned me to their Singapore office. So it was a great pleasure to return, see old friends, revisit some of our favorite spots and see new ones.

Singapore is always reinventing itself, and as a stable, economic powerhouse, it is envied by other countries in Southeast Asia. Politically, it effectively operates under one-party rule (the party of the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, who died at age 91 last year.) Lee Kuan Yew led Singapore from its independence in 1965 and transformed it into the modern city-state it is today. His son succeeded him.

Singapore remains a beautiful, clean, city-state with virtually no violent crime, good public services, and an attractive place to visit. 

Lying 88 miles from the equator, Singapore is also hot and humid, but air-conditioning and the lush vegetation makes it much more comfortable. However, I had forgotten what it was like to get out of a cab and have my glasses fog up from the heat!

The best thing about our Singapore visit was getting re-acquainted with friends. Kevin reconnected with T.T., his friend, the porcelain collector, who first introduced Kevin to Asian porcelain. Becoming friends with T.T. and learning about porcelain was the highlight of Kevin's stay in Singapore in 2006, and it has given him a lifelong interest. (Unfortunately, we do not have a pocketbook for extensive porcelain-collecting, but Kevin has acquired a few pieces and a lot of knowledge that has enriched his life.) T.T.  gave Kevin another gift of porcelain figurines on this visit, which I know he will treasure.


For me, the highlight of this visit to Singapore was seeing my friend and colleague, Violet, once again. Violet and I worked together in 2006. Violet treated Kevin and me to a wonderful Indonesian lunch:

The lunch, rijsttafel, is the Dutch word for "rice table," an elaborate combination of dishes that derives from the days of Dutch colonialism in Asia. Today, it is a popular meal in Indonesia, Singapore, and in The Netherlands. We could not have had a more delicious feast, and you can see why we had full stomachs and could barely walk when we had finished!

Kevin wanted to say goodbye to T.T., so he left us after lunch, and I accompanied Violet to her lovely home in the suburbs, where I met her sister Margaret. Talk about hospitality! Violet and her sister gave me a gift of a carving of the Singapore skyline, a handcrafted handbag, and some hand-embroidered emblems that Margaret had made:

Margaret, on the left, and Violet, on the right, showered us with food, gifts. and kindness.

Violet has visited us in Seattle before, and I hope that one day they can both come. I also hope it's not our last visit to Singapore. Nothing matters more to us than family and friends.

We had two other must-do items on our list: a visit to Fatty's Restaurant (today run by Skinny, his son) for our favorite claypot chicken. As you can see, Kevin eagerly awaited the dinner.

Singapore must be the food capital of the world! We also savored Chinese food in Chinatown...

Where the servers all posed with Kevin for a photo...

And we visited our favorite Irish pub, Molly Malone's:

Molly Malone's sits not far from the Singapore River.

Singapore continues to grow and change. A taxi driver jokingly pointed to a construction crane that towered over the nearby buildings and said, "That's Singapore's national bird."

New to Singapore, since we lived there, is Gardens by the Bay, a nature park of 250 acres, built on reclaimed land. When I observed photos of the gardens and their supertrees before this visit, I wasn't too impressed. But when I actually visited there, I found the gardens and the supertrees delightful! The gardens radiate beauty day or night.

We particularly liked the evening light show. I've seen sound-and-light shows at many locations, but this one was especially pleasing. We watched from the Supertree Grove as the lights pulsed to show tunes like "Memory," "I Dreamed a Dream," "All that Jazz," and others. I think it may have been the best free show I ever saw; the dazzling display went on for about 15 minutes.

The long curving line in the photos below is a walkway. It made some pleasing abstract photos.

No, it wasn't quite an experience in nature, although the supertrees are covered with plants, but it was magical. I guess I'm still a kid at heart. I love fireworks and light displays!

Here's a link to a video of the show that another tourist posted on YouTube, alhough nothing compares to actually being under those supertrees, leaning back looking up, as the lights dance above you. (Be sure to click the full-screen icon to view it.)

Gardens by the Bay also features this odd baby sculpture that seems to float over the hedges.

The sculpture is called "Planet." It's by UK sculptor Marc Quinn and was modeled after his own infant son. I wish my night photo of it had turned out, when it really looks surreal. It's huge! It's 10 meters long (almost 33 feet).  

It's not universally loved. One critic said of it, "I'm delighted that Quinn is soppy about his son, but see no reason why he should share this on such a colossal scale. Art that flaunts its content in an immediately readable way risks vacuity. Shouldn't there be some ambiguity, even profundity, in art?" 

We were sorry that we didn't get to some of our favorite places in Singapore, including MacRitchie Reservoir, which includes a rain forest park with monitor lizards and monkeys--right in the middle of Singapore. Or Pulau Ubin, on island off the coast that is now mostly a nature reserve. I understand it still has the small village (kampung) where people live much as they used to years ago. But time, sadly, did not allow us the opportunity to visit again. Having heard that our renter in Seattle was leaving, we cut the last part of our journey short.

However, it was wonderful to see our friends again and to walk the streets of this vibrant city. Singapore has so much to offer travelers, especially those who seek out its hidden treasures.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

New Zealand Part VI: Farewell

We spent our last couple days in New Zealand reconnecting with our friends Kathryn and Glen in Ponsonby. Lynda, Kathryn's sister, whom we first met when we lived in England in 1989-1990, even came down from Lang's Bay for a farewell dinner. It meant a great deal to us to be able to spend just a little more time with our friends.

Kathryn and Lynda had recommended a walk for us at a nature reserve when we saw them earlier, and we were finally able to squeeze that in before we left. The reserve is known for its bird life.

From our first visit to New Zealand years ago, I have always liked the pukekos (pronounced poo-keck-kos by some or more like poo-key-kos by others), funny little birds with long legs that, although they can fly, often run away in the most comical fashion.

See a video of some pukekos running here.

Pukekos breed prolifically in New Zealand, and because they can fly, they have an advantage avoiding predators, a facility not enjoyed by the birds we were most hoping to see at the reserve, the takahes (pronounced talk-a-hees). We were lucky! We did see them!

Although they bear some resemblance to pukekos, the takahes are bigger, have shorter legs in proportion to their bodies, and they can't fly. We could walk right up to these guys, so no wonder they are so endangered! The reserve has built high fences that extend underground to protect them from weasels and stoats and from domestic dogs and cats.

Once thought to be extinct, the takahe was rediscovered in 1948. Today, in spite of a vigorous conservation effort, there numbers are still limited. When we reported to our friends that we had encountered three of them, they said, "Oh, you were lucky! There are only 11 in the whole reserve!"  

As of 2015, there were only 300 takahes in all of New Zealand, so we felt privileged. A rara avis indeed.

We felt sad to say goodbye to New Zealand, one of the most beautiful countries on earth, and especially to say farewell to dear friends on both the North and South Island, unsure of when we may get together again. Next stop: Singapore.

I would be remiss not to mention the economic problems that the small dairy farmers are having in New Zealand today. The concentration of dairies by agribusiness, a trade deal between China and Australia, and a drop in dairy prices have come together to create a severe problems for the smaller farms. We saw evidence of this downturn throughout the country, highlighted here in a local paper:

Monday, June 6, 2016

New Zealand, Part V: Around Dunedin

The area around Dunedin, on the South Island of New Zealand, offers some spectacular views. After our stay in Timaru, we headed down the coast to Dunedin and the nearby Otago Peninsula, where we had rented an Airbnb cottage.  A few days later, our friend Stu joined us, so we had a little more time to reminisce--and to build some new memories.

Our explorations included a visit to the Royal Albatross Colony on the Otago Peninsula. The albatross is the world's largest seabird, and it spends more than 85 percent of its life on the sea. The colony near Dunedin is the only place they breed on the mainland.
No doubt the colony would no longer exist but for a local biology teacher, Lancelot Eric Richdale, who began studying the albatross in the area back in the 1930s and protected their nests. 

The albatross is a magnificent bird to see in flight. We were lucky to see aerial displays and to view three chicks on the nest, two of whom were fed by their fathers, regurgitating food into their open beaks. (It's difficult to get close in the viewing station though, so my photos are a bit blurred. Kevin shot the first one below.) Albatross have the longest wing span of any bird--as much as 11 feet.

If the chick appears as big as the father (standing), it's true. They actually get bigger than their parents before they finally slim down as they learn to fly. The center has 25 or 26 nesting pairs. Once fledged, the young birds will stay at sea for 5 or 6 years before they return.

If you're interested, check out the live webcam from the Royal Albatross Centre on this peninsula of great scenic beauty.

There are yellow-eyed penguins in this area too, which we have seen in the past, but we didn't find any on this visit. (There is a center for penguins nearby, but we had already spent a lot of money on the albatross center, so we didn't go.)

However, we did encounter this fellow on a beach. Kevin named him Bullwinkle.

We discovered there is a reason you are advised to keep 10 meters  (about 32 feet) away from the sea lions. They will let you know if they are irritated. Kevin was barely 10 meters away, but Bullwinkle still didn't like him that close. He charged! And boy could he move fast! 

Here's Bullwinkle after the charge, considering whether photographers would make a tasty lunch:

The city of Dunedin offers several attractions too, including its marvelous 1906 railway station that Traveller magazine called one of the top 16 rail stations in the world.

At the Otago Museum, Kevin found time to try and hatch a reproduction egg of an ancient moa, an extinct flightless bird that grew up to 12 feet tall. 

The museum also featured a butterfly garden, perhaps the best I've seen for variety and quantity.

We thoroughly enjoyed our cottage, a New Zealand house of the 1940s with original woodwork and features. Not only was it cozy, but we really enjoyed meeting our hosts, Shukuru and Neil. Shukuru is from Tanzania, one of our favorite countries, and she met Neil when he delivered a boat to Tanzania. They were both warm and inviting, and sadly, I can't find my photos of Neil, but here is one of Shukuru with me. She looks so young and pretty that it's hard to believe she and Neil have a teenaged son! She is also a talented artist.

Thanks Shukuru and Neil for a lovely stay!
Between Dunedin and Timaru, another attraction drew us--the Moreaki Boulders. Large, spherical boulders, they are actually concretions. They have crystals on the inside. They looked a little like stranded sea creatures among the seaweed.

This boulder had broken open to show the crystalline features inside.

Too soon we had to say goodbye to the South Island. But you can catch a glimpse in this blog of why we returned and why we would like to return again.