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‘Drip coffee’ in cafe (ThanuSingha Bakery House) in Portuguese area

My introduction to Bangkok was getting on the Sky Train (BTS) into central Bangkok from the airport.  An emaciated woman in bright, colourful clothes and ripped fishnet tights was walking around shouting out loudly pointing to her feet, a lacklustre, skinny boyfriend following behind.  The station security spoke into their Walkie Talkies, noted them but let them be.

Despite the stories you hear of Bangkok (sex trade, drugs), I felt safe walking around even at night. In the central parts anyway, there are so many people, so much traffic.  I soon realised however that the surge of traffic does not necessarily stop at a pedestrian green light and motorcyclists (motorbike taxis are ubiquitous in Bangkok) ride freely up pavements to get ahead.  The most negative aspect though is the lack of fresh air.  Googling online it said that levels of pollution had been particularly high of late, at ‘red’/’danger’ levels, with a warning of particulates that seep into your lungs.  I see a few people (but not many) wearing masks.

Getting round Bangkok by Grab taxi is not always easy in the traffic.  An American guy I met said the driver gave him (kindly) a bottle to wee in, as they were stuck in IMG_20180207_145440traffic for so long.  Otherwise, a more original and speedy mode of transport is by boat along the main Chao Phraya River and khlongs (canals). Jumping across the gap, bank to packed boat, seemed crazy at first, plastic sheets going up either side as protection from the spray of stagnant water.  As with the Thames eons ago, rubbish and waste is still poured into Bangkok’s waterways.

However, despite the pollution, getting used to the open boats (no safety rails on some sides of larger river boats), the putrid water, the rat we saw running in front of us along the street, I can still see why people say they love Bangkok.  In all its chaos, Thai people are very friendly, smiling and bowing politely as they say thank you (Khorb Khun Na Ka/Krup). There is also a multitude of restaurants/cafes (including

vegetarian and vegan) and a wealth of places to visit.  We took a boat up the canal to the Golden Mount (Wat Saket), ringing the obligatory bells on the way up to the top of the ‘Wat’ (temple), a very peaceful place away from the hubbub.  The main religion followed here is Buddhism.

When I first arrived, Bangkok reminded me of Blade Runner (the original), with its tall buildings, overhead LED advertisements, Sky Trains (BTS) and busy-ness.  There is an eclectic mix of street food vs upmarket shopping centres.  From my reference IMG_20180208_141028points, it is like a mix of New York, Bali and Singapore.  Big city, tall buildings, old-world charm (NY) – see the 1950s looking buses too – dusty, chaotic city life (Bali) but with modern shopping centres (Singapore).

After a while, my third or fourth time by Express Boat on the Khlong Saen Saep, I start getting into it, noticing the flowers along the bank (despite the green, murky and foul-smelling water), and the easy, relaxed feeling of living here despite the crazy traffic and amount of people (just over 8 million). It is ‘a city of contrasts’ as a friend remarked.

As well as seeing the giant Buddhas and a few Wats, I’ve walked round some of the parks, eaten out at original restaurants with lovely food and feel at home with the number of expats you see around (listening to the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, James Bond theme tunes included, on a Sunday evening in Lumphini park).  I also had an exciting day travelling by wobbly, IMG_20180213_153153open air train to the (famous) Maeklong railway market, taking in the cleaner air and green fields along the way.  There you are squeezed to the side as canopies are pulled up (every 3 hours), the train rolling past perilously close.  Anything from fish and fruit to clothes is sold by the market traders either side of the tracks.

‘When I came here at 16, I rang home crying, so dirty and dusty, and then after 2 weeks I loved it’, said a young Russian woman I spoke to at a cultural meet-up. I think I can relate to this.

 

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View from Lumphini park

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2 weeks in Bangkok

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Wellington – harbour front (morning)

I am now writing retrospectively on New Zealand, fresh is best but I have kept in some of the drafts I wrote along the way and included a lot of the photos showing the stunning scenery in New Zealand. I was lucky that arriving in Spring time, October, it was mostly ‘just like Summer’, with the exception of only a few days, the most memorable being sitting watching the rain from the YHA in Wanaka, the intention being to cycle round the lake that day. Me and a fellow room-mate in the shared female dorm were entertained with live guitar music by a very friendly guy who was leading a group of youths round New Zealand.

So then, to pick up where I left off on last blog. I arrived in Taupo, happy to leave the tour bus, but worried about finding accommodation. In the end, I stayed in 3 different hostels over a period of a few days – it was New Zealand’s ‘Labour Day’ (Monday off) so pretty booked up everywhere. The hostels varied from what I can only describe as ‘teenage boys bedroom’ (pardon the sexist cliche), ie: messy and dark, to luxurious, with curtains you can draw across for privacy (Hakka Lodge) with the extra luxury and freedom of my being the only one in a four-bed dorm! Avoiding BASE (yes, indeed) accommodation, I found that YHAs offered clean, safe and friendly accommodation with everything organised pretty much the same with certain quirks, as in Picton where hot apple pie was on the menu every night at 8 pm!

At one of the hostels in Taupo, I decided to do one of the activities on offer, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (‘NZ’s Best One-Day Hike’), with its volcanic landscape, but after weather warnings of 100 km gales and snow falling on the mountains too, our early morning bus turned back and I was left to relax in the hostel, a little comatosed both from hostel living generally and the 5 am start.

I did get to do a beautiful day-hike along the Abel Tasman coast track (Abel Tasman National Park) in the North of the island, one of the nine ‘Great Walks’ of New Zealand. With others from my bus tour, I did a sea kayak with very friendly and genuine guides and then a 7.9 km coastal walk back along part of this track. In the quieter Spring time (not high season) we bumped into at least one person doing the whole 60 km, camping on the way.

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Abel Tasman National Park – kayaking

Most of those on the tour bus are German with excellent English. When they do speak to each other in their native language, the only word I can make out is ‘skydive’. Many on the backpacking circuit are looking for adrenaline thrills: skydiving, helicopter rides over glaciers (‘an amazing experience’ I was told) and bungee jumping. An Austrian woman in her 30s who I kept bumping into going from hostel to hostel, said that she loved the skydive but the bungee was a waste. Two seconds after stepping off the platform her brain switched off and the next thing she remembered was her hair and hands skimming the water.

I give these death-defying feats secondhand as I do not plan on doing any of the jumping out of planes, falling backwards at great height – the canyon chair swing – and all the other exciting ventures/near-death experiences. One night I had the most vivid dream however of gliding down from a building towards the ground, so numerous have been the skydiving conversations.

I have been surprised by how touristy New Zealand is. Even though our tour bus promises ‘getting off the beaten track’ most towns I’ve seen are set up to offer ‘the best’ experience (this seems to be part of the lingo here as well as ‘sweet as’). Some of the activities are completely over-priced, a walking tour in Franz Josef costing 75 dollars (‘it wasn’t worth it’, someone told me later).

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Arrowtown

I ask the shop assistant how many people live here (Franz Josef): ‘around 500’ she says. It is totally geared towards tourism, hostel after hostel, hotels, a wildlife kiwi experience, a whole central point offering tours up to the glaciers. I am feeling that I prefer the small towns, Thames in the North and Picton and Arrowtown (near Queenstown) in the South Island. In Picton I took a cycle (free) from the hostel and pushed it up the steep hill through the trees/ bush towards the Bay and cycled back along the Waikawa – Picton track. A beautiful, clear and fresh sunny day.

After Picton (end of October) I stopped off at Nelson (on the way to Abel Tasman), with expectations of a seaside town with quaint cafes and art. I only spent a night here but found it to be from my perception, well, just an ordinary, small town. I did go to the local film festival ‘Top of the South’ which was, well, interesting/different, especially with the red carpet affair.  But I got to talk to some local Kiwis and met a friendly Mexican woman, Gabriela, the next day going with her to a Mexican festival (‘Day of the Dead’) in the nearby Founders Heritage Park. Her boyfriend was playing there in the only Mariachi band in New Zealand.

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Waikawa to Picton track

Three of the nine Great Walks, namely Milford, Kepler and Routeburn, are in the West of New Zealand in the Fiordland National Park. So too Te Anau which boasts of 200 day’s rain per year. Encouraged by everyone that the Milford Sound cruise is worth doing, not just another boat trip, we were told, ‘it’s actually better in the rain’. I wasn’t sure if this was just positive sales talk, but some local women I spoke to said you do get the waterfalls from the rocks on either side. The sun would have been nice too, but it was true that it was spectacular scenery, including the mountains on the way down, the Irish coach driver adding to the day, giving us a wry overview of the landscape. Most of us focused on the alpine parrots (Keas) as we stopped to take photos.

Previous to Te Anau I had arrived in Queenstown. I actually stood in the street and felt I would cry, maybe hormones, not liking the hostel, or just feeling suddenly alone. Travelling brings up a whole host of emotions as someone said to me. Mostly I have found it has opened my heart in that it has taken me back to a time in my youth, the sense of freedom, positive new experiences, meeting new people and also enjoying my own company, and most especially being outdoors in nature. Having bumped into someone I knew and then meeting a fun couple from Mississippi, the deep South, who were getting married in New Zealand, having an incredible, vegetarian lunch, from a very friendly manager at Hebedes cafe, buying some new walking shoes (out with the old) from an ‘English’ sales assistant (who make up most of those in Queenstown), I suddenly felt more positive again.

As well as taking in the beautiful, spacious, vast, expansive, huge vistas of New Zealand, I have met and chatted to some interesting people: a rather geeky and nice Amanda from America who I met in Picton, having arrived via ferry from Wellington in the North. I was impressed that she had trekked solo the length of the Queen Charlotte track (70 km) in the Marlborough Sounds, carrying a 20 kg rucksack staying in huts along the way. I’ve met a 30-year-old German woman in a cafe who was travelling with only a para-glider on her back and the clothes she stood up in and other adventurous types of all ages (including retired), awaiting news of the opening of Tracks after weather warnings.

Those I have met have been travelling for different reasons, whether to escape after the breakdown of a relationship, dissatisfied with life, a job, or like myself, for visa reasons – a happy opportunity for an adventure later in life. Most on the tour bus have been in their 20s but it was nice to meet up with some around the same age, including a lovely woman from Lithuania and another from Hungary. A few travellers’ have asked about Brexit: ‘did I vote for it? What do I think of it?’, including an English teacher from Germany, who had jacked it all in to travel round for a few months. I then ask her: ‘What do you think of us English, you must think we’re all crazy’? Apparently the most number of Google searches in Germany is ‘why are the English so strange’?

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Diamond Bay – Banks Peninsula, Canterbury

My last experience of room-sharing was in Mount Cook, I was by then glad to be heading to Christchurch where I had booked in to do some volunteer work (‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’, ‘Whoof-ing’ for short). This was in a small, beautiful seaside town called Sumner. Immediately throwing away my carry-around freezer bag for food (hostel living), I enjoyed settling in one place for a while. However kind the hosts, living in someone else’s house is only sustainable for so long. But I really enjoyed the gardening, as well as exploring nearby walking tracks, the beautiful  Banks Peninsula, and swimming in the sea at Sumner, during my free time.

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‘Saturn’ seen along Rail Trail

When my hosts drove to Alexandria, I was invited along and given the loan of a bike. From there (7 km from the start) I began my journey on the Otago Rail Trail, a 152 km cycle ride between Clyde and Middlemarch. In the hotel at Launder, one of the stops along the way, I ended up chatting to and having dinner with a young, friendly Irish couple who I then cycled with on and off along the Trail (over 3 days) surrounded by a landscape of wide open skies.

As well as the excitement, sense of freedom and adventure of travelling solo around New Zealand, there were also challenges: the hostel I walked out of in Wellington (after Taupo) was a little seedy (I then stayed in a lovely YHA hostel), the sharing of dorms is not always easy (but never as challenging as I imagined), the others on the tour bus were mostly younger than me (but not always).

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Walk with local women – Te Anau

What is there not to like about New Zealand? With only 1 million or so people on South Island, it is isolated, from culture too (the latest theatre, music), especially outside the main cities. There is said to be a high rate of suicide, earthquakes are a reality, there are challenges in the Maori community – poverty, gangs – with a push all over New Zealand to teach the Maori language and culture. I noticed too that gender relations are more traditional in an outdoor but also more macho culture (gum boots, 4x4s, shooting). In all, however, I found New Zealanders (‘Kiwis’) to be open and friendly, including the welcoming group of women I joined for a walk in Te Anau on the day it snowed.

If you are an outdoors type, it is a paradise. In the sunshine especially, New Zealand is stunning – cool and fresh air, beautiful vistas, amazing light.

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The Wharf, Thames, The Coromandel region

Tips

Reading: ‘The Luminaries’ by New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton

Travel: I found InterCity buses comfortable and reasonably priced (especially if book early)

Hostels: YHA every time – non-profit making, friendly staff, clean, safe and organised

North to South Island

My journey – my New Zealand adventure – began as I arrived jet-lagged into Auckland feeling a little alien in a strange town, even though everything is very familiar here. The temperature, the cool air, and of course the English language.  Auckland is a vibrant and busy city.  I notice the Maori-looking people and a bus driver with a large muscular frame who looks like one of the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’.  I saw a white guy eyeball a driver who cut in front of him and an aggressive fluorescent jacketed worker arguing with an Asian bus driver.  I also saw homeless people and dodgy-looking people. In all it looks familiar, like London, like any city. The Sky Tower (tallest structure in New Zealand) is Auckland’s main feature.  As a tourist attraction, you can even jump off this! I go to the smallest art house cinema screen (Academy Cinemas) I’ve ever been in, 3 seats across, to watch ‘In Between’.  It is a film about 3 very different Palestinian-Israeli women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv and trying to live their lives within a culture that seeks to repress them.  An honest film which offers no easy answers and is by a female director, Maysaloun Hamoud.

I survived the shivering cold on my first night in an Airbnb in Auckland, until (blame the jetlag) I discovered the small heater in the room.  In the day the temperature is warmer.  It is October and still only Spring.

My next stop is Thames, near the popular coastal town of Coromandel.  My impression of Thames is of an old Western town, reflecting its goldmining history. A young salesman in a sports shop tells me that the old square buildings, late 19th Century, have been used in advertisements.  I like it here.  It is a small, quaint town, looking over a bay, the firth of Thames. The fayre on Sunday ranges from crocheted hats and other goods to mussels. I saw 3 buskers along the main street, which is full of a multitude of cafes, from high-end to greasy spoon.  The shops slotted between the cafes are a mix ranging from psychic/new age and organic to a Christian bookshop, with an array of second-hand shops, from antique to Salvation Army.

I had the ‘best fish and chips in New Zealand’ here as recommended by a friend of the host of the Airbnb.  It is on the Wharf on the edge of town, which sits along the bay.  I also hired a cycle from Jolly Cycles and cycled along the Hauraki Railway Trail (see photo). My ambition was to cycle to the Karangahake Gorge, 40 km away, which a few of the locals raised their eyebrows at. Later on, I am finally convinced of the benefits of an electric bike (e-bike), ‘you still get exercise and can go further’. They are right, the path is gravelly and the sun is shining brightly.  ‘There is no ozone layer’ and I have been advised by more than one local that Factor 50 is essential.  I return after a couple of hours or so, having stopped off at the ‘Matatoki CheeseBarn’ for a drink along the way.

Whilst I wait to check in to my lodgings at Thames, having arrived via the hop-on hop-off tour bus, I wait in the stylish Cafe Melbourne.  There is a woman with a tattoo on her chin – apparently every pattern tells an individual story.  Maori was once only an oral and visual language before it was colonised, the British and Captain James Cook arriving in the late 18th Century.  A friendly, older woman sits near me and we chat.  She speaks of how she used to walk a lot when she and her husband hunted, deer hunting.  Admitting you go hunting seems to be second nature here. As a vegetarian (eat fish) on the tour bus, sometimes the ‘veggie option’ at group meals means bread and salad.  One of the activities we are offered at one of the more remote stops is shooting/hunting.

I’m surprised to hear that they have a cinema in the small town of Thames.  To while away the time I go to see the documentary ‘Mountain’, also with a female director, Jennifer Peedom, which shows the changing relationship between humans and mountains/the natural world.  Where we have become closeted and safe, there is a need by some to seek out danger, including the adrenaline junkies who snowboard, cycle and freefall like birds from the mountain tops.  The male voiceover (William Defoe) also notes the queue of climbers going to Everest, not really an adventure of discovery anymore.  All with a soundtrack including Vivaldi.  The projectionist has put it on especially for me, I am a little late, but ‘no-one has turned up for it’.  I can hear the sounds of the cartoon in the next cinema as I am mesmerised by ‘Mountain’, and the spirit of exploration, which seems an apt way to start my New Zealand adventure.  

Having had a few days by myself interspersed with chatting to locals and my friendly Airbnb host in Thames, I am now ready to be around more people.  The bus picks us up around 10 am and we head to Hahei and Cathedral Cove in the Coromandel peninsula which must be the most beautiful beach I have ever seen, golden-white sand and blue-green, clear water.  The sun is shining and the air is crisp. I walk with a few others from our group and we wished we had brought our swim suits as we walk along the cliff and down to Cathedral Cove, where we stand in front of the ‘most photographed rock’ on the beach, the beach that  featured in the Narnia film.  

I also do the sunrise tour to this cove by kayak the next morning, which is really nice but as with all of the tourist activities, there are always cheaper options, such as walking along to it or as one fellow traveller noted, he swam round to a smaller cove where you can see the stingrays in the water near the beach, as shown to us by the kayak leader.

We stopped off later in Rotorua, in the Bay of Plenty.  Many went on the more expensive tourist activities, including the hot mud baths, walks to see geysers. I really enjoyed a morning off, looking over at the steam rising in the distance from Sulphur bay – ‘Danger: Thermal Activity.  Keep to the Walking Tracks at all times’ – and went swimming in the Blue Baths (circa 1930s) with thermally heated pools at the side.  It was nice to exercise and I enjoyed being alone too, which is the blessing of an organised tour bus/guide and the challenge of shared dorms.  We had been travelling on the coach a lot too, looking out at the stunning and mountainous New Zealand scenery.  

I am now in Taupo with the lake ‘as big as Singapore’ and the snow-capped Mount Ruapehu looming in the background.  I hopped off here on impulse, encouraged by seeing such picturesque scenery and the lively cafes. I now have the freedom to explore and relax, a good feeling.

Hot pools and thermal activity – New Zealand’s North island

There is definitely an edge to Bali.  

The traffic flows like a river. There are no pedestrian crossings. It is a case of manoeuvring across (heart in mouth) with the assistance of relaxed (non-aggressive) Bali drivers. There is no public transport so most are on bikes, even 13 year olds (illegally). The push to engage tourists is keen: ‘transport, massage, massage.  Where are you going? Transport’. And as you walk along the beach: ‘you want to surf? ‘a drink maybe?’ ‘Ice-cream?’

This is Kuta.  Bali’s first and famous tourist resort.  The feeling of being mobbed less intense now the Chinese and Koreans are here on their Golden Week holiday (an assigned 1 week off by their governments), alongside the usual Australian and, some, European holidaymakers.  There has been a noticeable drop in tourists recently following fears of Mount Agung erupting.

Inland, Ubud centre was just as crazy as Kuta with lots of shops, cafes, traffic, people. I managed to escape the crowds here with a walk up the Campuhan Ridge Walk, a meandering climb up through lush green rice fields and forest, with quiet cafes at the top.  

Later in the week we ventured to Batu Bolong via ‘Grab’ taxi (very cheap and mostly reliable). The beaches here, including Echo beach, are a surfers’ (intermediate) paradise with high crashing waves (not so great for swimming). We enjoyed the relaxed vibe here, the live music as the sun set and the beach bars and nice cafes, including a raw food/vegan restaurant.

In Bali you can buy a Starbucks grande ice latte for 51,000 RP (equivalent to 5 Singapore Dollars, around £3) and get laundry done for 10,000 RP a kg, a large bag of clothes washed and ironed all for the price of a coffee!  

Prices vary in this bartering economy.  I took advantage of the bike transport (or he took advantage of me!). Quite fun and exhilarating. I took a short journey, pillion-style, round the corner! (2 minutes), paying 20,000 (random price) to return to the Ayu laundetette.  This had involved earlier walking up and down a narrow street (Poppies 1) asking for directions from a security guard and then being offered help (we still didn’t find it) by a white, English woman who had been back to Kuta 9 times! So she knew it ‘quite well’.

This week I nearly got hooked into what seems to be a regular scam here.  A scratch card handed to you in the street, saying you’ve won first prize.  The ‘tricks’ involved included a kindly man who looks astonished you’ve won, excited that he will also get 50 dollars because of this, and the professional looking woman in the office round the corner where you are guided to pick up your prize. It was with this and a ‘why not’ attitude that I then found myself in a car with the kindly man and driver heading to their ‘new hotel’ to check it out and to pick up my prize. Alarm bells rang, I said I’d changed my mind, and with a sense of relief, made a quick and timely exit (20 minutes walk away).  Later I found out about the corporate videos and pressure (stuck out in the middle of nowhere) that would have been put on to buy a timeshare.  

Earlier in the week, quiet on the tourist front, I was also surrounded at one point by 4 sellers on the beach, offering massage (as she semi-massaged my back), bracelets, tattoos (showing me a book of pictures), massage (massaging my legs, ‘give something to mama too’).  All because I had shown interest in the bracelets, as in ‘looked’.  You soon learn to say ‘no thank you, no eye contact, no guilt, as they come towards you with the: ‘hello (‘hello, sexy body’), how are you?’

Despite the pressure of bracelet sellers, masseurs, shop owners, taxis beeping at you relentlessly for custom, crazy busy-ness of traffic and noise from music, Bali is different and stimulating and, despite the dominance of persistent sellers, the Balinese seem generally relaxed and I have met some genuine and friendly people here.

Notwithstanding a beautiful beach, there are also quieter, less hectic places than Kuta.

Bali basics

Bali sunsets and mopeds

It takes 2 hours to fly to Bali.  We left Singapore from Changi Airport on National Day, the red and white flags hanging neatly from the balconies of HDB flats in unified celebration: ‘Happy 52nd Birthday Singapore’. I was looking forward to getting away from city noise. This became evident as just before our holiday I spent the morning drawing with Scenic Rangers, when my entry alongside my drawing was as follows:

Very noisy, builders clanging metal rods, constant flow of traffic, shutters going up for opening (late) of shops, children gaggling excitedly. CITY LIFE

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I think I am the only Westerner in the Scenic Rangers, but regardless they make me feel very welcome, offering advice on my drawing, Chinese pronunciation! (I started to learn basic Chinese) with general chat too over lunch after the sketching.

There are still the old colonial buildings in Joo Chiat Road, Kitchener Road, Katong and other areas of the city.  We look at famous artists’ watercolour paintings on someone’s iPhone, depicting the people and cityscape of Singapore during the 1960s: ‘there was more culture then’, laments one in our group who remembers this time.

Whereas Singapore now is clean, safe, ordered, Bali in contrast is curiously (perhaps gloriously) chaotic. As well as the beautiful sunsets on the beaches and late afternoon light of our holiday in Bali, what stands out are the mopeds/motorbikes: ‘there are more bikes than houses’ declared our driver.  As well as children clinging to their father or mother, I saw a baby held by one passenger, a teenage girl riding pillion (‘side-saddle’) whilst holding a box and, most surprisingly perhaps, a family of 4 (2 adults/2 young kids) on a bike whose dog fell off as they skirted a corner.  Most of the drivers (but not all) were wearing helmets but none of the child passengers.  From old women (refreshing and surprising to see) to the very young (legal age is 16) scooters weave in and out of the traffic like people manoeuvring round eachother in a busy street.

IMG_0409As well as mopeds, bartering is ubiquitous and perhaps tiresome too.  ‘How much for the beach shawls?’ ‘300,000’ Rp (Indonesian Rupiah), she (the shop owner) replies.  ‘But you can barter’ she adds as we consider this.  With no comparisons, we left wondering whether it was a fair price, despite everything being so cheap in Bali.  The sun beds ranged from between 50, 000 to 200, 000 Rp per day depending on the whim of the owner/how much they could get vs the need of the tourist.  We were also consistently harangued walking along the Sanur promenade: ‘where are you going, massage, massage…have manicure, come my shop’.  We learned to not give eye contact, not get pulled in with a hello back.  We later saw a beach masseur gliding her hands without effort over the shoulders of a willing recipient.

Notoriously, however, there are very cheap and good massages in Bali.  I had a massage at a local salon – an excellent reflexology massage, ‘strong or medium’ he asked as his muscular hands worked tired muscles, sometimes painfully.  An hour cost 60,000 Rp, which is about 6 Singapore Dollars, around £3.

Westerners are targeted more than Asians, one Singapore woman told me, ‘as they know we (Asians) understand the culture’.  We found a lovely croissant/illy coffee-serving cafe along the beach, the owner was open and friendly, with good English.  We got chatting and I asked if she had been to England – ‘I’ve never been anywhere’ (‘it is hard even to make ends meet in Bali’ she told us matter-of-factly).

IMG_0410Chance (of birth) and circumstance.  The contrast between the value of money in Bali compared to a rich city state like Singapore and other western nations is huge.

There were also a lot of stray dogs on the beach, surviving on the goodwill of stall holders /holidaymakers, contrasting with the ‘smiling’ pampered pooches/pets with their owners.  One dog with a ball, cooling off in the sea, got eye contact with one sturdy looking dog, a stand-off of a minute or so – the golden retriever (owner nearby) then playfully frisked around the ‘street dog’, ‘play with me, play with me’, receiving a growl in return.

Despite the relative poverty of those living in Bali, we saw a lot of happy, smiling faces as we ventured through the countryside (many on mopeds!).  We had succumbed to the sales patter of a driver, bling rings and a friendly manner, who handed us his card as we walked along the beach path: ‘would you like to take a tour, here, see my map’.  The next day we visited rice fields and then a waterfall (both very touristy) as well as a coffee plantation where we tried the various flavours of coffee/tea, buying a packet of their lemongrass tea and Bali cocoa.  I was saddened by the Asian palm civet (‘toddy cat’) in its cage, used as a machine for expensive coffee.  It basically eats, part-digests and shits the coffee cherries (cleaned) which are then used for ‘kopi lewak’.

IMG_0414Sanur, the resort we stayed in, has lots of Australian, German and French tourists and lots of restaurants and cafes vying for their/our attention. But it was still lovely.  With a natural reef, low tide saw the fishermen wading out, barely knee high in the water, the distinctive and colourful boats along the shoreline, luminous in the early evening light, and kites (a hobby for a lot of locals) flying together high in the sky.

The air in Bali is also cooler than Singapore and of course a sea breeze is always welcome in contrast to the heat of a city.  Returning to Singapore I have felt glad that there have been clouds all week, something I would never have said in England!  The humidity therefore feels better than remembered, and there is always air con.

 

 

 

Bali sunsets and mopeds

Getting around Singapore is easy, cheap and efficient, whether by bus or MRT (Mass Rapid Transport).  As well as affordable housing for all (‘HDB’ flats, Housing and Development Board), cheap and tasty food at the Hawker Centres, seemingly round every corner, there are also community centres aplenty and generally people from all walks of life gathering together.

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Quick sketch on MRT, 2 stops!

The Straits Times, said by some to be censored and government controlled (it is the only paper in Singapore), is full of positivity and there is a drive, and action, to improve things.  Last week there was an article (heartening) in the paper headlined: ‘Early action to break cycle of poverty’ (intergenerational) with an initiative by the Government called ‘Kidstart’, regarding ‘…preventative work/…before a social problem gets worse or even starts’ (Garcia Goh, lead social worker, Singapore Children’s Society, Straits Times, 17th July 2017).

There are consequences for your actions, see fines for littering, eating on public transport, (feeding monkeys!) and most severely, imprisonment and strokes of the cane, for more serious offences.  Whether you agree or not with these ‘rules’, or how they are managed, Singapore feels very safe; ‘you can leave your purse and know you will get it back’, as someone remarked to me recently.  You also feel safe to walk around at night.  Convenient (a bus/MRT ride away), safe and efficient, it is ‘easy’ to live in Singapore.

I have also found people to be very friendly, kind and open.  Sketching on the streets,    school kids pass by saying positive things like: ‘that’s beautiful’, ‘amazing’.  A young Indian woman gave me a cuddle on the train saying: ‘so fast’, having watched me try to sketch people within 2 stops on the MRT.  Another guy gave me the thumbs up and a smile when I sat drawing the woman’s hands opposite (asleep, so I hope she did not mind!).

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There are seats allocated for older people, pregnant women, the injured etc on both the MRT and bus and people will automatically offer up their seat (even non-allocated) if someone needs it.  ‘It is easy to be kind when life is easy’ as someone pointed out to me.  There is cheap food (Hawker centres), affordable housing (HDBs) for all Singaporeans (despite private rent generally being very high in Singapore) and help with finding work (I have heard).  Alongside positive news stories (Straits Times) and constructive initiatives, such as building more cycle paths, intervention for children at school, and uplifting signs such as ‘Let’s make Singapore our garden’, it is not difficult to understand how this might permeate into a positive, kind and caring culture.

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On the busy bus – gushing with rain outside.

Last weekend we visited Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and saw a large family of monkeys, a bright and colourful Kingfisher (stunning) and turtles swimming in the reservoir.  You are never too far away from nature.  One of the monkeys, seemingly disinterested at the passersby in the park, leapt out suddenly and chased a young guy, who quickly put away a closed crisp packet he was carrying.  They also showed aggression when a couple got too close to one of the baby monkeys, but otherwise you just have to watch your bag and don’t carry food! (There are signs in the park warning of fines of 1000 Singapore Dollars for feeding the monkeys and warnings to keep 3 feet away as monkeys get nervous).

Having now been here for over 2 months, I feel pretty settled in to the way of life, getting used to the heat (humidity) and how to avoid it (unbearable in the bright sunshine) – shade and aircon!  I was even told recently by an American guy, asking me for information (which I did not know) on the ‘hop-on, hop-off buses’ in Orchard Road, that he thought I was ‘a local’.

It is perhaps worth mentioning about the helper (Chinese) we have recently got, well this is Singapore after all, with a long tradition of helpers/maids! (Despite very affordable housing, food and transport there is still a great divide between the richest and poorest).  Well, I’ll come clean, so to speak.  It is a ‘Mi Robot Vacuum’.  I am yet to decipher the spoken Chinese (having only had 3 lessons so far) but I think it says things like: ‘bag needs emptying’.  I imagine it is the equivalent of what the 1970s ‘Pong’ (the very first PC game) is to Nintendo/PlayStation games now, with regard to AI Robots of the future.  It scouts around, finds the best route and cleans like you wouldn’t believe! (Highly recommended).

Singapore is said to be going through a recession and like England when the chips are down, there is a general backlash against foreigners: ‘there are too many here’ as one woman said to me!  There is a laid back vibe here, with a strong tradition of everyone mixing together happily, but I have heard stories (a small element) of ‘racism’, including where competition is fierce for jobs.  The understanding is that the government wants to be welcoming and open but has listened to these concerns.  A lot of jobs are now for ‘Singaporeans only’ and there are quotas for companies in employing those from outside.

Of those I’ve met, most (like myself) are ‘foreign’ in Singapore, many originally from say India or Malaysia, or the Philippines. Most of the labourers (building work, cutting the branches of trees, gardening) who work hard all day in the blistering sunshine are here from Bangladesh or Malaysia (I have been told) and even my hairdresser commutes back to Malaysia at weekends, where the lifestyle and housing is cheaper (and of course where it is ‘home’ too).  One older man whose family, ‘way back’, were from China, but whose family has lived for generations in Singapore, considers himself ‘global’.  He remembers Singapore before 1965 (year of Independence) after which it was cleaned up.  I think he preferred it more ‘grimy’, less sanitised.  ‘There are not many places like this left’ (in Singapore), said a fellow sketcher who was drawing the rather mouldy walls in a back street! (1920s houses).  Singapore is indeed spotless.

We did venture back in time a bit, however, when we ventured out from the city state of Singapore, paying just 3 Singapore dollars (under £2), to take a boat from Changi Village to the island of Palau Ubin, where I was surprised by the hush that descended, suddenly realising how noisy and busy is life in the city.

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Palau Ubin is ‘how Singapore used to be’ (no Starbucks or MacDonalds therefore!).  We had a coconut ice-cream and fresh coconut juice from one of the huts there and hired a bike to cycle round the island which takes around 3/4 of an hour (with some hills) all told.  We looked out for wild boars (don’t approach and back off slowly) and monkeys (we didnt see any) who are also just looking for food (so keep your bag close, they have been known to run off with them).  The huts round the island are named after Malaysian birds and we saw one tropical bird.  We had more luck with seeing wildlife at Bukit Timah but it was lovely to visit and the journey across the sea (the sea breeze) was relaxing too.

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Looking out to Palau Ubin island from Changi Village

 

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Easy living

img_0350It is a good 6 weeks since my first impressions of Singapore were of ‘a stunning city, even in the dark’ (our taxi ride from the airport to our first place of stay in central Singapore).

My other impressions went as follows:

The next few days were spent marvelling at the beauty of this city, it is perhaps difficult to say a city is beautiful, as in the countryside is beautiful, a town is beautiful, but it really is. It has been designed according to a ‘master plan’ (overheard on a local Asian radio station this week) and has been designed to be visually pleasing, from the greenery that pours forth from a hotel to the design of the high-rise buildings. It is visually stunning and clean! Even where rubbish is piled, it is swept and piled neatly.

It has been quite a difference too stepping outside into oven temperatures, that envelope you, best in shorts and a T-shirt and best to only walk so far in a day. It is true that the locals cope with the heat by staying in the air-con!

And there is always a cooling shopping centre to enter…

We have seen giant snails and black birds with long orange beaks.

An exciting, vibrant city.

You do still see these rather un-shy birds a lot! Since moving to the East and being here a little longer, I have also seen stray cats (they must find it hard to find food where there is not an overspilling of bins) but learned that often in the communities around HDB flats (Housing and Development Board), i.e.: public and affordable housing, many cats are loved and looked after.  This was vouched for by the number of photos of resident cats on the mobile phone of a fellow ‘crazy cat lady’ at one of these HDB blocks.  We met at ‘The Projector’ cinema watching ‘Kedi’ (Turkish for ‘cat’, a documentary about cats in Istanbul).

This leads me on to cinemas in Singapore.  There are quite a few, but really ‘The Projector’ is the only arty one, showing films such as the cat documentary (‘Kedi’) and ‘The Red Turtle’, an engaging animation (Studio Ghibli), and ‘Your Name’ (Anime), which I also went to see. It is open in the day time and nights at weekends, but late nights only in the week, and the films are limited with some re-runs such as ‘Hot Fuzz’ coming up later in July.  However, they do have film festivals, such as the Mexican one recently, and there are other films out there to look out for, The ArtScience Museum had a FREE run of Anime (i.e.: Japanese hand-drawn or computer animation) films recently.

‘The Straits Times’ ran the headline this week about the dropping number of cinema-goers in Singapore.  I enjoy reading The Straits Times, I find it is a cross between National and local news.  As well as main features/headlines on World News, it has positive local news stories and a desire to improve things – the news story today features a move to make designated smoking areas in Orchard Road ‘smoke free’ in future:

“Some people will find it a strong measure, but this shows the commitment of the Government for the nation to adopt a smoke-free lifestyle” (D K Thomas Abraham, Sata CommHealth chief executive and an anti-smoking advocate).

‘Verbal warnings’ will be given for the first 3 months it is implemented and as reported too in the article: ‘Ms Niki Chua, 32, said the ban will mean the shopping belt will look cleaner. “Some people smoke outside and throw (their cigarette butts) on the plants,” she added’.

I enjoy watching Asia News too, with its sunny presenters, which is also a cross between National and local news. This is not surprising, Singapore seems vast, but it takes just 25 minutes to drive from one end to the other (without traffic!), so a taxi driver told me.

The same taxi driver also told me of his friend who received a 300 Singapore dollar fine for littering when he threw rubbish into a bin, ‘but missed’.  If my recall of what he said is right, the next fine is something like 500 Singapore dollars, the third offence, 1000 SD with Community Service.  To paraphrase him, he said: ‘you see them (the offenders) sweeping up with the hi-viz on…to show what hard work it is to clean up in this heat’.

(Incidentally, I was surprised then that I haven’t seen a lot of police around, thinking maybe CCTV played a part?  Apparently, they are more likely to be going past you in Bermuda shorts, than an official uniform).

Well, harsh or not, whatever your take on it, it does seem to be working.  Butt (pardon the pun), as Niki Chua says (see above) you do see cigarette ends gathered around certain areas, only so noticeable in light of the contrasting cleanliness.  The consumption of food or drink on public transport is also strictly forbidden, with voice-overs on the MRT/notices on buses as reminders.

Public transport is therefore super clean, it is also cheap and ultra-efficient, whether that be the modern MRT (underground) or bus service; you just top up a card electronically and use this to go via either mode of transport.  In fact, it is also the best way to escape the heat, as both are air-conditioned.  When it is 33 degrees (‘feels like’ 39 degrees), recommended even for a few stops!

Lastly, Hawker Centres have tasty and very affordable food and are constantly busy with throngs of people from all walks of life  My favourite at the moment has been the Thai food at our local Hawker Centre, Tom Yam Fried Rice (with 3 prawns – I know because I have had it 4 times already!), cooked fresh and delicious, all for 5.5 Singapore dollars (around £3) and as good as any restaurant food, if not better!

The fresh juices in the Hawker Centres are fantastic too, my favourite being apple, orange and ginger but what I got the other day was apple, cucumber and celery.  I do not think that the stall holder’s main language is English but the misunderstanding went something like this: I asked for no. 25, he repeated back the fruits for 34, to which I said yes, apparently.  It was still a nice, cool, refreshing drink.

Most everyone speaks English in Singapore, and those who have grown up in Singapore for sure (having to learn too the language of their ‘official ethnic group’) but there is a mix of languages and cultures, including Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian, what is commonly described on the internet as ‘East meets West’.  There is also pride in speaking ‘Singlish’, of being identifiably Singaporean, to quote the tour guide at The Discovery Centre, where we looked at the history of Singapore.

So then, things I love about Singapore: the food! The efficiency, cleanliness and ample green spaces, a sense of kindness and helpfulness within the culture – there is a friendly, safe vibe here – and the general intent by the government it feels to make things better.  Just before leaving the UK, a shop assistant had enthused about Singapore (he had stayed here with relatives).  I now know what he means when he said: ‘…it just feels like everyone there (Singapore) is part of it/working together’.

 

 

Things I love about Singapore

Today we visited a most joyful, colourful and engaging exhibition at the National Gallery, Singapore.  Under the title of ‘Life is the Heart of a Rainbow’, it showed the bright, dotted and original work of Yayoi Kusama.  I read about her life on the app you can download at the exhibition: she was born in Japan in 1929 and battled against both her family, who expected her to conform and marry, not allowing her to do art as a girl, to eventually moving to a life in New York ‘where she felt she could have more artistic freedom’.  

Flowers and pumpkins, as well as phallic shapes, appear in her paintings and of course the dots! She spent days, sometimes without sleep, on her artworks, using different media, ink, acrylic, screenprint.  We queued for 20 minutes at a time to go into the yellow dotted room and then into a room full of coloured lights where we had 20 seconds (timed) in here to take in the ambience and take photos because of the long queues.  

Yes, things are very organised and clear in Singapore, which is great; as with the stickers of entry to exhibition: ‘put on your left hand side’, said the friendly woman at the ticket kiosk.

I loved the coloured, abstract but detailed acrylic paintings especially, so too the detailed dotted artwork, ‘net paintings’, of her early work in New York.  It was amazing too to be immersed in her art in the individual rooms.  A really joyful experience.

Joyful exhibition

Obikes and oh so hot

I took this picture of an obike for posterity but ended up reporting it to obikes,  and a very friendly and efficient customer service team (email), as broken. It is a great system,  you can get around the city, green and efficiently, the idea being to take short trips (15 minutes).

There has been much discussion and concern over obikes being left in undesignated areas.   A letter from a man in ‘The Straits Times’ discussed the problem and the bikes he’d reported, and ‘still nothing is done’ Others on the obike Facebook page suggest fines, or ‘it will keep happening’ .

However,  having been unsure whether to leave it at the MRT with other similar bikes (the official Parking area was a long way away), I asked the question via email of ‘where it is best to leave them?

The response was that they are looking into more areas for cyclists to park. A great scheme and I hope more areas will be designated soon, otherwise it is difficult to be good and you end up leaving it where you see others have.

One roadsweeper asked: ‘Are you a journalist?’ as he looked disparagingly towards the obike and as I waved my phone around trying to get a signal to unlock a bike parked (‘illegally’)  behind the bus stop.

It was great though when I did find a bike to unlock, by scanning a bar code.  Most seem in good working order and after adjusting the seat,  I cycled in the sunshine round Marina Bay,  stopping to eat at the Golden Shoe hawker centre,  near the business district, with its towering buildings.

Having cycled back and forth and then ‘home’ again,  finding a suitable,  or not so suitable, cycle rack area,  I wandered up the road a bit with the intention of maybe doing some sketching.   Do not underestimate the sapping of energy of the hot sun beating down.   Instead,  I quickly returned to air conditioning and the pool, trying a traditional Malaysian cake, delicious. Living in Singapore.  Not a bad life.

‘GSS’ (The Great Singapore Sale), is here (end May/June), an annual event when shops give promotions.  And here I was on my way to buy some stamps in one of Singapore’ largest shopping centres, a labyrinth of 4 towers/ buildings and 4 levels where you can easily get lost.  On this, my 4th visit, I found my way round a little more easily

However, I am not sure whether it was GSS or looking gullible but I found myself lured first into being offered some free scented soap (‘yes, the lemon one is nicer’, ok, I will wrap it up for you’, ok, thank you) and then into being given a survey of my facial skin: ‘Let me show you this cream..” Having after some time escaped from the friendly, but pushy, saleswoman from the Ukraine (‘for you a special promotion…’), with a cleaner arm (the test proving that the cream, magnesium, opens your pores and then wipes away hidden dirt), I ventured on up escalators and past more shiny cafes and shops, when I was again handed another free sample from a tall, dark, friendly guy.

Where are you from?  Cambridge, UK.  He was from Greece.  ‘For you I have another gift, I don’t always do this…’.  ‘It’s ok, I’m not buying anything’, but again I found myself with an outstretched arm feeling the cream (‘with diamonds in it’) exfoliating my other arm.  As I got up to leave reiterating my: ‘I’m not buying anything at the moment’ he said: ‘It’s ok.  See, not all us salesmen are the same’.

The third person who offered me a sample, on my way to my destination, Singapore Post, I gave a polite ‘no thank you’.,

The ‘Great Singapore Sale’ (GSS’)