Thursday, October 23, 2008

Singapore Fling I

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

[Posted from Starbucks, of course]

We have arrived in Singapore. Yesterday was a sea day for which we were thankful on soooo many levels. We had time to organize our “stuff” prior to packing; we could spend time and money in the ship’s casino; and we could sleep in. After three straight days of shore excursions, we were tired.

Singapore is a big, Western city. There are high-rise buildings popping out of the ground like spring flowers. Most if not all of the apartment buildings are government-owned and are refurbished and updated on a regular basis, every 6 years according to one source. The infrastructure seems sound and the roads are well-paved. The Singapore government discourages private automobiles and has provided a modern public transportation system which includes the MRT subway; getting around is easy via the MRT, taxis and buses.

Because we were playing the Vanderbilt’s again, we could not take a regular cab to our hotel but had to use a minivan once we cleared the Cruise Terminal. We had left the ship promptly at 10 a.m. to discover that our checked luggage was waiting for us on a trolley. All we had to do was wheel it 50 feet to an x-ray machine. Security personnel unloaded the bags and then re-stacked them once they emerged from the jaws of the scanner. We wheeled ourselves out of the terminal and to the taxi stand where we were to back inside to get a driver of a big taxi. MA stayed with the bags while D did this; we were mildly aggravated only because we had not been warned about this prior to disembarkation.

Even so, we were on our way to the Singapore Marriott by 10:30 and arrived within 20 minutes. We found the city to be very green and clean with much parkland along our route. We also saw at least three schools which is noteworthy because we hadn’t seen many schools in our other ports of call. Check-in was a breeze; porters emptied the van of our luggage, gave us tags for the bags and told us not to worry about them. When we were registering, the clerk asked about luggage and was given the seven receipts. Within ten minutes of our arrival in the room, the suitcases appeared.

After resting for a bit, we ventured forth into the wilds of Orchard Street. Orchard Street must be the Rodeo Drive or Worth Avenue of Singapore. It is filled with individual high-end retail stores and tony multi-level shopping malls. We wandered on Orchard for a little bit taking in the sight of Gucci stores next to 7-Elevens and noodle shops. Singapore is such an amalgam of cultures that it all fit together despite the apparent incongruities. We were looking for a camera store because our video camera had been misbehaving, going to black when it should have been recording and jumping when there was no apparent reason. We decided to try our luck in the Paragon mall. Tres chic. Very upscale, with no camera store, it did house a Marks & Spencer department store from London, a Lawry’s restaurant; lots of high-end stores; a Toys-R-Us; and a basement filled with restaurants and drug stores.

As we walked through this lower level, we realized that we were on a collision course with Ed and Roxanne. We just stopped and pointed, unseen by the oblivious Roxanne. Once she recognized us, she practically shrieked. We all started talking and then repaired to [where else?] Starbucks. We had drinks and chatted for a while. They had had a busy morning tracking down their absentee ballots and delivering them to the US Embassy. They had also taken the cable car ride which carried them directly over the Amsterdam as it crossed the Singapore harbor. Once back in town, they had been caught in a sudden downpour and had sought shelter in Paragon mall to stay dry and pursue Ed’s search for more AA batteries.

We finally said goodbye for the second time [last night was the first] and headed off on our respective e quests. We found no camera stores in the mall but did find an allegedly Indonesian restaurant where we had chicken curry, steamed rice, nasi kuning [a yellow rice] and the ever-popular Coca Cola. Lunch was inexpensive but good and we congratulated ourselves on our good luck in finding the place.

We headed back toward the Marriott, still looking for a camera store. We had passed several on the way to the Paragon, so we stopped at one on the way back. The salesman [for that is what he was] said the problem with the camera was the humidity of SE Asia, and he would be willing to sell me a new video camera for only 1200 Singapore dollars [SGD]. He would even discount it, he was such a nice fellow. We left quickly. At the next store, the salesman also blamed the humidity for the lack of any image and explained that the change from cold [as in A/C] to warm and humid messed with the camera. The jumping picture was probably the result of dirty recording and playback heads. That made sense, so we agreed to buy a head cleaner. He tried hard to sell a wider-angle lens for the camera and was persuasive, especially when he included the head cleaner and an adaptor ring for about the same price, 150 SGD [about $100 US].

The day was still overcast and threatening, so we decided to return to the hotel and do some sight-seeing tomorrow in the hope that the weather gods would smile on us again. Jon called right after we got to the room, so we chatted with him before reading and resting. We ate dinner in the hotel tonight because of the weather but expect to be more adventurous tomorrow.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

We started late this morning with muffins and coffee in the hotel lobby. Veddy civilized, you know.

If this is the Year of the Cruise, this must be the Cruise of Public Transit. Since we have already toured by train, tram, subway, taxi, minivan and speedboat, we decided to try our luck on the MRT, the local subway system. It is a big help to us that the dominant commercial language is English and signs are easy to read. We were also lucky that the Marriott is situated on top of the Orchard Road MRT station, so all we had to do was exit the hotel and take an escalator underground. This underpass can also be used for getting across the huge intersection in front of the hotel.

The ticket machines were easy to operate once we watched someone else. The machine has an interactive map on which you simply touch your destination and watch as the correct fare is displayed on a screen. We used one-way tickets since we hadn’t firmed up our plans; there are package rates but we think we are better off buying on a “pay as we go” basis. All “regular” tickets carry a $1 SGD handling charge which is refunded at the same ticket machines upon exiting. Since the tickets are really magnetized plastic read by the turnstiles, the $1 guarantees their return for re-use. This is a much more cost efficient and environmentally sound system than paper tickets. Of course, the machines can also add additional funds should plans, and costs, change.

We duly followed the instructions given by a ticket agent and made our way into the bowels of the station, heading for track 5, the train to Marina Bay. We transferred, though, at the second stop, Dhoby Ghaut which we refer to as Dobie Gillis. If you have to ask, it won’t be funny. We made the transfer without incident and headed for HarbourFront, the station at the cruise ship dock. We had seen the office and shopping complex yesterday from the ship.

Our destination was the cable car which travels from Santosa Island to Mt. Faber. We had also seen the cable cars yesterday as they rode thorough an office building. The system has only three stops – Mt. Faber, Santosa and the HarbourFront office tower. We found our way from the MRT to the right office block, paid our fare and rode to the 15th floor to board the cable car. We rode to Mt. Faber to take pictures of the Singapore skyline even though it was shrouded in fog. We were able to take some video during one of the brief moments when the camera was cooperating and even photographed our hotel which was easy to spot on the horizon.

When we had seen what little there was to see at Mt. Faber, we got in a car to return to the HarbourFront station but decided to stay on to and around the Santosa stop. Since we weren’t actually getting off at Santosa Island [another two bucks], no one bothered us. We were able to get a closer look at the Merlion, Singapore’s icon. A combination of a lion and fish, it sits proudly on Santosa overlooking the harbor. It is historically synthetic, created simply as the city-state’s logo. We finally exited from the cable car back at HarbourFront.

On our way “home” we stopped at a Canon service center in the office complex to see if they could diagnose our videocam’s illness. We couldn’t wait five or even the three days it would have taken for a professional checkup, but the clerk suspected that there is a dirty or faulty contact buried in the camera’s innards. We’ll check in Florida and hope it works when we see The Boys. We returned to the hotel to retrieve the computer, then walked to the Paragon mall to check e-mail at Starbuck’s. Once that was done, we went to the Singapore Airlines office and got boarding passes for Saturday’s flight to Cambodia. The agent was a bit surprised to see our last name appear so often on her screen, but we explained that Jon and his family were on the same plane. They have the front bulkhead seats because of Caiden and we have seats in an exit row so we can have more leg room. We returned to the hotel to write the journal, read and do crossword puzzles.

Dinner tonight was magic. We had read Cruise Critic reports on Singapore which spoke highly of Clarke Quay as a place to see; Jon and Briton had also recommended it to us, so that was our destination tonight. We took a short taxi ride because we weren’t sure where the MRT stop was in relation to where we wanted to be. The taxi, naturally, took us right where we wanted to be.
Clarke Quay is a vast wonderland of restaurants and bars although there are a few stores mixed in, but very few. Food choices range from Scots to Cuban to French to Spanish to Asian fusion and on and on. There are as many bars as there are real restaurants. Each place has its own gimmick. The most obvious was the place which had wheelchairs at its tables and stylized hospital beds for drinking and chatting. Overhead are large plastic shields to keep the rain off the customers – they look like UFOs supported by stainless steel toothpicks. Almost all of the eateries and bars were busy by the time we left around 8:20.

We ate at a tapas restaurant, the Tapas Tree. We each had gazpacho then shared a basket of bread, mushrooms sautéed with garlic in olive oil and a red bell pepper filled to overflowing with a mixture of cream cheese and mint. There must have been a full 8 ounce block of cream cheese stuffed into that poor pepper, but it gave us the chance to spread some of it on the bread.
The setting was as satisfying and relaxing as the meal. We were seated on a deck overlooking a canal with a footbridge about 100 yards away. The bridge was lit with colored lights which changed regularly so that sometimes it appeared to be blue or red while at other times it was showcased in a rolling ROYGBIV display. Tour boats plied the waters regularly, appearing from under the bridge in a relentless parade; obviously, they disappeared under it, too. On the opposite bank we saw steps leading to the water, but these, too, were colorfully lit. Again, they were often just one color, but often they were lighted in multicolored patterns. Behind the steps were office towers which seemed to have even more restaurants as high as the third floor [much like where we ate in Hong Kong]. It was enchanting. We wandered through more of Clarke Quay before catching a cab back to the Marriott.

Singapore is an amalgam of cultures. Because of its strategic position at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, it has been fair game for invaders and colonials for centuries. The most prominent influences are Chinese and British and most locals speak some form of English although one of tonight’s cabbies was less than fluent. There seems to be a large Indian population, too, but most natives appear to be of Chinese ancestry. Of course, there is a large commercial American presence, too, but that may not be such a good thing. It is sad that what we are exporting around the world is mostly KFC, Big Macs, Coke and Pepsi. On the other hand, we are watching season 3 of The Amazing Race: Asia right now, so who are we to complain?

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