Thursday, September 5, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 12

Someone said to me Singapore airport might be the best in the world, and it seemed that way today; we strolled out of the hotel and to the check-in counter without having to take an escalator or elevator or anything, and the whole process took about ten minutes. As airports go, it’s a cousin to the mall I described yesterday – enormous amounts of shining empty space, which somehow connotes classiness. Our flight to Hong Kong was easy too. Skewing to the lighter end of the film menu this time, I watched Gambit with Colin Firth (screenplay by the Coen Brothers, but I don’t think it was ever released at home). It was an easy changeover, and we got to Toronto almost an hour ahead of schedule, which confused us a bit because they never even acknowledged the fact, let alone boasted about it! My plan to watch my nine and a half hour Holocaust documentary – which still seems to me as though it should have worked – fell laughably short: I arrived home with about seven hours still to go. But at least I finished all my reading material. We both got a reasonable amount of sleep on the way and got back feeling, once again, that it had been about as painless as a whole day’s traveling could ever be.

Some people might think it’s an odd formula, to spend more two whole days, more or less, in transit, for the sake of eleven days or so of experience. But we’ve never worried about that. The eleven days are transcendent – you remember them forever, they shape you in ways you can’t define; they’re high on the list of how you sum up your life achievements. Any annoyances of the travel days are soon forgotten, and anyway, it’s not all wasted time - you can still read, watch movies, do other things you’d want to do anyway. We thought this was an astoundingly full trip. It didn’t have the spiritual aspects of our trips to Africa or Israel say, but now we can add another major city to those for which we possess a pretty good internal map (on the last evening we strolled around with total ease and sense of our bearings, which is a wonderful feeling to have, for somewhere that so recently was just a name on a map). And we'd had so little sense of Singapore before we went there – without seeing for yourself you can’t anticipate either its stunning, vast modernity on the one hand, nor its diverse pockets of beauty on the other.

And then we got to learn something of why Bali is such a hallowed destination, but also to obtain at least a sense of what that image simplifies and misses out. And we stayed in two of the very best hotels we’ve ever stayed in – they may even be the very top two if we thought about it. So the trip was an enormous success. Not a cheap one though, as I’d indicated before – for Singapore in particular we couldn’t even imagine how it would lend itself to any kind of tight budget.

Well, to wrap up. the biggest delay of the whole trip, probably, came in waiting for a cab at Toronto airport (maybe it’s because the film festival is starting). But then the roads were emptier than we might have expected, so it all evened out. Our place looked great. We went out for a drink that night, and slept in a bit the next morning, which I think was enough to fix any body clock issues. We went to the market and then I got Ozu, who was deliriously happy to see me, and pretty much ran all the way home. And so, as I like to, I end with an image of our happy dog.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 11

We woke up early, to the rain; at around 6 am I think I heard a ceremony of some kind in the distance, although I couldn't tell for sure. We ordered our final breakfast and ate it on our covered patio table (as opposed to our other table, the one under the big umbrella...what a place...); then we packed and left. When we'd checked out, they gave us something from a local textile batik as a final gift. By chance, we had the same driver again, Agusta, but today’s drive was much more slow and functional (at least there were no shakedowns). I didn’t mention before how much garbage we noticed in Bali (especially in comparison to Singapore) – even on our emblematic walk through the ricefields. It’s a small thing, but a further reminder that unspecific notions of an island paradise (which I think is as much as most people have of it; it’s certainly as much as we had) can’t come very close to engaging with the reality of a place. In some ways, the West seems fairly tightly at bay here – we didn’t for example see the images of Hollywood celebrities that you see throughout Japan, and the usual brand names seemed fairly scarce (the Starbucks in the middle of Ubud looked rather out of place); I don’t think the locals brandish their cellphones as much as we’ve seen elsewhere. But there’s also a lot of noise and rubble and tumbledown houses and, from the looks of it, some very strained economic realities.
When we got to the airport, he handed us off to another Four Seasons person who happily steered us through the process. It’s not much of an airport for such a storied location – actually it feels more like a bus terminal (a new airport is under construction however). But I guess a steady stream of notable visitors pass through it, currently including the participants in the Miss World contest which is happening here shortly (we caught a glimpse of Miss Singapore, who I guess from a local perspective would be one of the most exciting ones).

In retrospect, it's possible I didn’t book this part of the trip very skillfully – I initially booked the Toronto/Singapore return flight and then as a separate exercise booked the return flight between Singapore and Bali, but I could have cut out the return to Singapore, most obviously by having us fly directly from Bali to Hong Kong, where we make our connection. But on examining the logistics, it probably wouldn’t have yielded that much either in terms of additional quality time nor cost savings. Anyway, it’s hardly necessary to stain this account by musing on such trivial imperfections.

And if we hadn’t done it this way, we wouldn’t have had our last night in Singapore. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza at the airport – you glide right into it from the terminal. It’s a very striking hotel, built around a large garden and swimming pool; our room also has a glass-walled toilet, the rationale for which is a bit difficult to grasp. At around 5 pm we took the subway system downtown – we’d never used it during our earlier stay. It was of course very smooth and handsome and stainless, even if we might have forgotten how long it inherently takes to use the subway.
We returned to the site of our first morning walk – Marina Bay and the Gardens by the Bay. They were much busier this time, filled with joggers in particular – we walked down to the bottom of the Gardens area, where the path elevates and gives you a stunning view of the city skyline as it gets dark. There were people hanging out, having picnics, taking formal and informal pictures, playing Frisbee. There’s an area of fountains which recalls the recently-developed spot at Sherbourne Common in Toronto where I walk Ozu most mornings – the difference is that in Toronto it’s the whole destination, whereas here it’s just a throwaway detail within a project of incomparably greater vastness. And it’s still being enhanced – construction workers were working on what seemed to be some high-tech (naturally) water and light show.

It’s impossible to convey the glory of the sightlines, albeit an imperial, potentially deranged kind of glory – for example, it feels like we’ve been able to view the Marina Bay Sands hotel, the one with the ship-like platform on top, from every conceivable angle; likewise the London Eye-type attraction. At the foot of the hotel there’s a reportedly vast casino, and near there a retail mall of what seems like just irrational grandeur, with a canal and boat rides through the centre. It feels like a city that just throws out absurdly overreaching ideas and then effortlessly does reach them, just to show it can. And while we’ve seen more than a few impressive urban waterfronts around the world, this one might be the most stunning, in its size and diversity and total command of its effects (equally impressive, if you go to the end of the Gardens and look out in the other direction, the waterscape is entirely different, crammed with industrial vessels, because along with everything else this is one of the world’s busiest ports).
The inherently absurd and yet hypnotic “Super Trees” were cycling through different light schemes and pulsing in tune to some suitably eerie but pulsating music. A little later we encountered something similar by the bay, with a crowd gathered to watch the water - as if without human intervention - generate flames and bubbles and colours and effusions in tune to a blaring soundtrack. It’s crass and airheaded of course, judged as a cultural performance, but certainly expresses a city possessed with easy confidence. We sat at a restaurant there and shared a pizza and a salad (so the culinary expeditions on this trip are over). And then we caught a cab back to the hotel. The cab driver chattered happily about the country’s continuing growth, how every citizen recently received some kind of $500 bonus, how the government plans to grow the population by some 2 million people in coming years, mainly by immigration, but of a kind veering toward the skilled and the committed. You can’t help thinking this sounds like a bubble that can only at some point catastrophically burst, but the way the city looked tonight, I think anyone would have mused about signing up…

Monday, September 2, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 10

Today we ordered room service breakfast for the first time, and as with everything here, it felt extremely rarified to be eating croissants and fruit by our pool. Even more than in other higher-end places where we’ve stayed, it’s evident how every detail of the way things are done has been worked out and honed and drummed into the system – the checklist for cleaning the room and for the evening turndown service (whether it’s a mental or physical checklist) must run to several hundred items. A lot of it must seem oddly abstract – to take one tiny example, every evening they fill a container up with ice, the next day they pour out the water and dry it out, the following evening they fill it up again, and so on forever. But I suppose even the most elevated jobs, if you look closely enough, are made up largely of rituals which only occasionally intersect with actual needs (this certainly goes for the accounting world!)
Agusta picked us up again at 10 am and we spent six hours scooping up some of the emblematic sights of Bali. First we repeated our textile experience of the other day, except this time with wood carvers: you see a few carvers outside, working meticulously away, and then inside there’s a whole former forest’s worth of product. We bought what I think is the most expensive item we’ve ever purchased on a vacation – a handsomely carved and painted lion that should help keep evil spirits away (so there goes Ozu’s job). I must confess that as I write this, I’m not entirely sure it’s worth what we paid for it (even after the seemingly generous discount he threw in) but anyway, it’ll add to the variety of items around the apartment.

We then visited the Gunung Kawi royal monuments – a series of monuments carved into the side of a valley, at the bottom of a long climb of steps with further views of ricefields; accompanied by a temple and other monuments. It’s a large and fascinating sight, although as always, our engagement with the complexity and the history was merely superficial. As with everywhere in Bali that might be of interest to visitors, you pass a surely unsustainable number of small retailers along the way. The same was true for our next stop, Pura Tirta Empul. Although it has aspects going back centuries, much of this temple is more anchored in the present day – some sites were off-limits to those not actively praying, and a group of women (and one man) were standing in the bathing pools, where the spouts dispense holy water. At both these locations, by the way, I wore a sarong again, so maybe I’ll relent now and include a picture of that (even though the signs were very clear about needing to wear the sarong, some visitors nevertheless didn’t, for which I imagine there’ll be a huge spiritual price to pay).

Not that we needed him to, but Agusta said he was unable to enter the temples with us because he was in one of the periods when this is forbidden: these relate to childbirth, menstruation and (in his present case) the recent death and pending cremation of someone in the community. We drove to a look-out point from which to survey Mount Batur, one of the island’s largest volcanos, and the valley below. On the way up there we had to go through a police cordon, and when we asked about it, Agusta said it was just simple corruption – he handed over a folder which was rapidly returned, absent the money inside it. We ran into another one later on and on that occasion he didn’t even bother with the folder – he just slipped the money into the guy’s palm. I assume the amounts involved are small, but still, a sign it’s not all tranquil brotherhood here. He said similar principles apply in many government dealings. As a general impression, there was a somewhat rougher and more desperate air to more of what we saw today, and to the way we were approached by street vendors.
Shortly after that, a little dog ran in front of our vehicle and we felt the wheels go over it. Agusta was apologetic but made no attempt to stop. The dog was plainly too young for its owner, if he or she cared, to allow it such freedom, so I guess there is a mutually fatalistic attitude to these things. Still, given our enormous investment in the well-being of our own dog, it was a low-point to the day. Our next stop was at the rice terraces near Tegallalang – more magnificently scenic rice fields, except rising in fairly steep layers. We took the path that winds through them: as you move along, you’re regularly asked for a “donation” (which translates into around 50 cents) to enter the next stage. We followed that more or less to the point where the rice terraces turned into woodlands, and then went back. And then we returned to the hotel. I think I’ve adequately conveyed by now how things go from there! Except that Ally didn’t have a nap, perhaps because she was overly electrified by the book she’s reading (Barbara Kingsolver).

Back in Toronto, the webcam suggests that Ozu and the other boarding dogs slept in for Labour Day. We had dinner one last night at the hotel. At the next table was a Mexican couple who insisted on rejecting the menu and summoning the chef to specify their own meal in immense detail (for example, beef cooked “between medium and medium-rare”). It seemed to us both overwhelmingly pretentious and a denial of one of the great pleasures of foreign travel, but maybe I’m missing the more elemental joys of ordering people around. Once again (to acknowledge that we also are settling more into certain patterns of repetition as we get older) we drank wine outside our villa. It always sounds like there are frogs nearby, but we never see them. Sometimes I think it’s just water dripping. Ally had overdone it and, for the first time, went in before I did. So I had the night and the space and the wine and the frogs (or is it just water, or at best lesser insects?) all to myself…

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 9

Among our ongoing sources of amusement on the trip: my hopelessly untapped list of things I brought to do – a big pile of reading material and the DVD of the Holocaust documentary Shoah, all nine and a half hours of it (well, I’d wanted to see it for years, but kept putting it off because of the length – with two day-long plane rides, I thought this would be the ideal extended window, if admittedly not the optimum setting otherwise for a Holocaust documentary). At the time of writing, at least half of my reading material is still unread (and I’ll be irritated if any of that comes home because, of course, more will have accumulated in the meantime) and I’ve watched a pitiful 48 minutes of Shoah. Still, we have a lot more travel time in the near future. On the bright side, I’ve promptly written all these journal entries as I go along, and I’m about as up to date with web reading as I would be at home (we haven’t switched on the TV even once, neither here nor in Singapore).
Anyway, that’s hardly the main priority on our daily agenda. I think today was the first day of the trip I woke up to daylight rather than darkness, albeit barely; Ally woke up several hours later, having been up for a while during the night. We caught the 11 am hotel shuttle into Ubud, and started walking in the opposite direction from the other day, toward the notorious monkey forest. Every source tells you to enter with care because the monkeys can be aggressive; anyway, we’d already had an adequate monkey-viewing experience in Singapore, so we didn’t bother. Even in the streets around the monkey forest though, you have monkeys blithely wandering about and sitting in the street, not worrying about the traffic or anything else, like the kings of the world. Maybe a few of the monkeys have been trained to act this way to attract the tourists, I don’t know.

We wandered the streets of Ubud a bit more, but it got repetitive pretty quickly. The town is usually described as an artist’s colony or suchlike, but we should have learned by now that this is inevitably code for endless stores, some of them perhaps selling items of quality and originality, but most just selling mass-produced crap, and as a whole offering no real incentive to investigate which is which. As you walk along, you constantly have to step around the little offerings of flowers and other organic material placed on the edge of the road, sometimes accompanied by the smell of incense (we occasionally came across them in Singapore too); the Balinese population is well over 90% Hindu, and maintaining these offerings and carrying out other rituals and ceremonies can apparently consume a large part of the day. Some people seem to invest more care into the appearance of the offerings than others do, although I guess they often get stepped on or otherwise mistreated.
Ubud also had the first signs of outright poverty we’ve seen on the trip, with women and their young children begging at the side of the road. There are areas of Bali where such a sight would likely be much more common, and some people think coming here is morally tainted unless you’re meticulous about how you spend your money. On the other hand, immigration has been swelling in recent years, most of it driven by job opportunities flowing from tourism, and it’s plain that the West itself has lost all practical interest in matters of ethical distribution of wealth. I wish I had a coherent formula for resolving these problems, but like most people, we just try to apply our instincts the best we can (probably far from ideally).

We found another trail, to the west of the one we’d taken previously, this one going along a lush river valley filled with coconut palms and studded with impressive homes. We passed many local kids, often paired off into couples, hanging out oddly close to the main path; our guess was that custom or parental decree or suchlike dictates that if you’re going to go on a Sunday afternoon date, you have to stay in plain sight (one boy at least seemed to be trying to persuade the girl to deviate from this, but without success). We brought some drinks at a little store along the way, and a group of women were trying to haggle about the price of water and orange juice (this seems to me a poor way of applying one’s instincts, just saying). After they left, the shopkeeper asked us where we were from, and then asked us whether the women she’d just been dealing with were from France, which I took to speak volumes about her impression of them. I told her I thought they were Russian, although I wasn’t sure.

We had a few more nice views of ricefields along the way, but it soon became somewhat less scenic, marked more by the noises and activity of everyday life (motorcycles, as always, being a big part of it), albeit always pleasant and interesting. Eventually it just turned into a road and didn’t particularly seem to be going anywhere, so we retraced our steps. We then visited the Blanco Renaissance Museum, dedicated to the works of artist Don Antonio Blanco, the self-styled “Dali of Bali.” It’s a helter-skelter collection, consisting primarily of skillful but unexceptional female nudes, and a lot of outright wackiness, such as collages devoted to King Kong, Mick Jagger and whatever else might have entered his head. More context might have been necessary to explain why this indicated the work of a “Maestro” rather than that of a mere regional oddity. Anyway, it’s always nice on a vacation day to mix things up a little.
We had a late lunch/early dinner at a restaurant that felt grafted onto the side of the gorge, looking down into the river. As usual, after a while, it was just us and the staff; in general, Ubud feels geared up for twenty times as many visitors as were there today (well, to be more precise, that’s true for the number of restaurants and retail outlets, but not as much for the width and condition of the sidewalks). We caught the last regular shuttle back to the hotel at 5.25 pm and spent the rest of the evening here. I curtailed my nap and Ally didn’t have one at all; around 9 pm, we ordered dessert, and instead of sharing just one dessert as we nearly always do, we ordered two and shared them both, so there you go, we’re losing all restraint now. And we drank some wine. We spent some time speculating about future trips we might take, which in no way indicates we’re done with this one yet.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 8

We eased into Saturday, letting the light slowly fill our villa, and watching the early morning rain give way to a beautiful clarifying heat; it was simply a gorgeous day. We'd booked a car for 10 am; our driver was Agusta. Our desired destination was the beach resort of Sanur, although he didn’t really try to hide his view that this was a somewhat lowbrow request – we explained that we were specifically doing this as a contrast, to see the other side of Bali, but I think he still thought it was a dud choice. However, he elevated the tone of things with well-chosen diversions on the way.
First we stopped at a plantation where they grow various organic crops, and produce numerous varieties of coffee and tea and chocolate, as well as wine and other sundries. The speciality is the luwak coffee, made with beans that have gone through the digestive system of the Asian palm civet. We each had a cup of this, as well as sampling fourteen other flavours of tea and coffee (which thankfully failed to turn us into high-strung messes for the day) and two kinds of alcoholic beverage. Frankly, I wouldn’t have said the luwak coffee really benefitted from the extra work – not that I’m a connoisseur in this area (a Google search suggests this might not be an uncommon assessment though). Anyway, we bought quite a few things in the gift shop, as was no doubt expected of us.

Then we stopped at the Pura Puseh temple in the village of Batuan, some parts of which date back a thousand years. It’s obligatory for visitors to wear a sarong, thus generating the only photo that’s ever likely to exist of me in such an item. It’s a magnificent space, and seemed quite busy with local as well as tourist activity. Once again, I noted as we drove along that Bali seems over-supplied with unsold stone statues, but Agusta didn’t seem too worried on the stonemasons’ behalf. We passed through one village where it seems every second building houses a wood carver; another where everyone seems to craft jewelry; these groupings, it seems, reflect and reinforce the continuity and coherence of Balinese families and communities. Certainly the people we’re talking to seem wonderfully serene and grounded, although I suppose that might speak in part to the power of the Four Seasons brand (by the way, some 300 people apparently work at the hotel, and there are two sniffer dogs; celebrities who’ve stayed here include Julia Roberts, Cindy Crawford, Steven Seagal, and most recently, Metallica, as a break prior to the Asian tour I mentioned the other day).

We eventually reached Sanur, and no doubt he’s right – beach resorts are more the same the world over than they are different. But it still turned out perfectly because it has a path along the edge of the beach that goes for several kilometers – we didn’t even reach the end of it before turning back, because I guess we’re too nice and thought we might be keeping him waiting unduly. Much of the beach belongs to hotels or private clubs,  but at least they let you pass through, unlike some irritating places we’ve been which impede the flow of public space (he wrote as he looked up and surveyed the view from his villa). Of course, your progress is constantly accompanied by people trying to sell you a boat ride, or souvenirs, or (today’s variation on the vending activity) massages and facials, but they’re seldom very strident about it. In general it didn’t seem particularly busy, even though I believe this is one of the peak seasons. The only group I would have identified as being at a possible tourism peak was the, uh, older crowd – I haven’t seen so many elderly people since I went to the matinee of a Woody Allen movie. And most of those kept their shirts on. Anyway, we stopped for lunch along the way and it was a very pleasant few hours.
The roads around Ubud are generally quite narrow, with a rather startling number of seemingly perilously young kids on motor scooters. Apparently the official driving age is 17, but the police don’t enforce it on the smaller roads. Quite a few times as we drove along, I imagined we were going to plough right into the bike in front of us, but it probably all co-exists in deceptive equilibrium: drivers don’t seem aggressive, and you can stop the flow of traffic by stepping out into the street. Anyway, on the way back we stopped at a “batik,” where we observed a group of women (and one man) dyeing and designing various fabrics; someone showed us the process and then, naturally, led us into the accompanying store which (not to seem obsessed by this point) contained more inventory than a group of workers of that size and apparent pace could have produced if they’d been at it for a millennium. Ally bought a robe, similar to the one she’s been enjoying wearing at the Four Seasons.

And then we came back – she had a swim again, I sat at my desk again…all as if we’d been doing it for years. I had a bath later, although I just had a boring regular old bath rather than summoning someone to our villa to prepare a “serenity bath,” a “reconnect together bath” or one of the four other options. The resort has a great number of special spa treatments, guided walks and other offerings (for example, an eight-hour package which supposedly allows you to experience the life of a Balinese rice farmer), but as you see, we generally prefer to design our own events.
The hotel restaurant was running another theme night, based around a local Ubud feast, with a suckling pig as a highpoint. It looked great, but it was much more food than we needed, so we just ordered off the regular menu. We were soon, yet again, the only table in the place, and once the staff satisfied themselves no one else was coming, they all started enjoying the pig themselves, and why not. Once again we drank our wine outside our villa, the perfect vacation day being an artful mix of discovery and of repetition…

Friday, August 30, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 7

We both unthinkingly drank some of the tap water here (which is fine to do in Singapore but not in Bali) which may have contributed to neither of us getting an ideal night’s sleep. Once we got past that, we continued our marveling at where we’d found ourselves, wondering how we’d ever do justice to all our space (no matter how large our hotel room, we both typically end up huddling on the bed). We had a heavy downpour around 9.30 am (we were using the outdoor shower at the time,  so enjoyed the groovy intermingling of the hot water and the rainwater), and left the room around 1o.15. We walked round the resort a bit – quite an undertaking in itself. It’s a gorgeous feat of design, albeit that you might say it just commandeers a big chunk of the island’s common heritage for the benefit of a few people (the beautiful view of the river above, for instance, is locked deep within the grounds of the hotel), and a place where seemingly everything has been anticipated; for example, we found a kids’ entertainment area with a hotel employee sitting alone inside, apparently in the forlorn hope of any kids turning up. We wondered whether the hotel was largely empty (it can’t be full, given how we were upgraded) but then we started to see more people here and there – I guess the whole art is in making you think you might be unique.

The hotel has a shuttle to and from the nearby town of Ubud every couple of hours during the day, so we caught that at 11 am. Confirming last night’s impression, the turn-off to the hotel is just slotted innocuously between other places you wouldn’t blink at; you’d never imagine that if you drive a couple of minutes back from the road, and get past the guards and the sniffer dog, a whole lush world opens up (the sniffer dog seems pretty lucky because based on what we saw, all the other dogs around Ubud are strays). Soon after arriving there, we embarked on one of the most lovely walks we’ve taken in all our time together, through the rice fields above the town. The start of the walk is barely signposted, and initially takes you past a dense series of tour guides and cafes and art stores and suchlike, then they thin out and the rice fields come into view, dazzlingly vast and green, with farmers positioned at picture postcard intervals, and it goes on like that for almost an hour if you follow the main trail as we did, and perhaps forever if you take some of the side trails.

It’s a very peaceful walk, although you have to regularly stand aside for motorcycles, and every few minutes along the way you encounter further vendors of, usually, either art or coconuts. You pass some surprisingly serious-looking houses along the way too, some of them advertised as being for rent – it’s rather beguiling to think one might impulsively decide just to stay in the heart of the rice fields for a month or two. At the end of the trail you can loop back along a road, but it seemed much nicer just to retrace our steps. We forked off in a slightly different direction, and found a remote-seeming café where we decided to have lunch, the Sari Organik Café; it was surprisingly full of tourists, so I think it must be a bit of a destination in itself, as a place to watch the rice farmers as you eat, without having to walk too far from town (it doesn’t take long to learn that prices in Bali are much cheaper than those in Singapore, at least the way we did it – our lunch cost about $15, but would probably have been two or three times as much there, and four or five times as much at the Raffles). From there we walked back down into Ubud, but we could almost have turned right round and done the same walk again.

We walked up and down Ubud’s central street for a while. It consists mainly of art stores and galleries, with a relentless soundtrack of people asking if you want a taxi; and so many temples that you imagine it would be hopeless for anyone to try to inventory all of them. It’s pleasant enough, but probably not vital to an emblematic Bali experience (it seems bizarre that so many tourists would just walk up and down the street and let the amazing sights above the town go unseen, but that’s what the relative numbers seem to suggest). We caught the shuttle back, but with definite plans of returning to Ubud as a starting point for a further walk. They’d put some kick-ass chocolates out for us in our room. Ally swam in the pool and I sat at my desk doing this and the other stuff I do, and time went gently by. It rained heavily again for a while, so I guess we were lucky to have avoided it on our walk (in Singapore, strangely or not, it rained around 1 pm on I think three of the five days we were there). We both went to sleep for several hours and woke up in what could have been the middle of the night. It was actually around 8 pm, a time of day I enjoy because it’s 8 am back home and I can see Ozu on the Urban Dog webcam (he looks fine!)

We ate at the hotel restaurant again. It was a theme night built around an Indonesian feasting concept – earlier on there’d been a dancing performance. By the time we got there at least, only a few tables were occupied. They’d brought in a near-coachload of young girls as extra waitresses, all in local costume. The food was good, although I’m not sure it really embodied the subtle contrast of flavours described on the menu: the main course for instance had five different meat/fish dishes which inevitably tended to blend together. Afterwards we returned to our villa and drank a bottle of wine by the pool. Except for the occasional barking dog in the distance and some mysterious rustling in the trees, we might have been hours away from any other major form of life…

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 6

We certainly aren’t fooling ourselves that five days  is enough to glean much of a sense of the real Singapore. Given the pervasiveness of English at least in the areas we visited, you wonder whether many residents must feel somewhat distanced from their own country. Plainly, the wondrous development we’ve seen downtown doesn’t directly affect the lives of most people. It’s apparently a fairly authoritarian state, but we haven’t seen that either. Some of the older looking apartment buildings are festooned in national flags, which one of the cab drivers told us (we think) indicates subsidized housing, including a program in which people are paid for living with their parents for as long as the parents are alive. Presumably, as you get further from anywhere the tourists would likely go, you encounter lives governed more by such calculations. You see little trucks zipping along, with maybe ten people riding in the back, often all wearing matching jerseys; we take them to be transporting construction crews to and from wherever they’re staying (you see them in the middle of the day too, all stretched out in a row in some shady spot, having a group nap). The hostess at the Long Bar told us she’s from the Philippines and rides over an hour to get home every night. These are just fragments pointing to the inevitable unreliability of our impressions.

We certainly appreciate the fact that no one pays attention to us, since any attention you attract as a tourist is usually at best annoying and at worst outright dangerous. The only real exception is that there are always rickshaw drivers outside the hotel who try to get us to take a ride. They’re a bit of a mystery actually since we’ve only once or twice seen them anywhere other than around the hotel, and they all look too old to go very far, so I’m not sure how much action they can possibly have going. Anyway, we liked Singapore even more than we expected to; we settled into it quite completely, and can completely imagine coming back one day, although I suppose that’s unlikely (if we do, we want the same room, #130, or else one of those next to it – it’s hard to imagine one of the rooms in the main building would have felt as special a hideout, even if they’re more luxurious by some measures). Even the heat becomes less of an issue with every passing day, as you ease into ways of dealing with it. For example, back home everyone stands at the edge of the street waiting for the lights to change, but here they hang back in the shade until the green man actually appears.

On our last day we checked out and left our bags, and then walked to the last major area we hadn’t covered, the historic Chinatown. Whereas Little India feels like a thriving, warts-and-all neighbourhood, Chinatown is clearly much more designed for visitors: you have signs throughout educating you on the wretched lives of the earlier inhabitants of the area, but now it doesn’t feel like much real life goes on there, let alone much suffering. Everything is clean and quite spacious; there are several very handsome temples - we went into one which felt like a happy meeting place. From there we wandered through some nicely preserved old streets, mostly home now to nightclubs and galleries, but with some interlopers such as “O’Bama’s Irish Bar.” We walked back through the heart of the business district, in the middle of the lunchtime rush, and then back along the river one last time. Just a perfect morning walk.

The hotel let us freshen up in the spa, and we caught a cab to the airport, where the whole check-in process took about ten minutes. We took the KLM flight to Denpasar in Bali, lasting around two hours: I slept for most of it, Ally a little less. Compared to the absolute serenity of Singapore airport, Denpasar airport had more of the happy chaos of a tourist destination, but fortunately we’d prearranged a ride to the hotel, so someone met us and walked us to the car. The ride took about an hour, almost all through somewhat chaotic traffic with motor cycles weaving in and out; the roadsides were a constant stream of low-end commerce – people selling things out of carts or off tables or in whatever way they can, punctuated throughout by little stone masonries displaying what might be a lifetime’s worth of inventory (the potential customer base is significant I guess, because we were told every home in Bali has its own temple). We went through one area where you could fleetingly smell the presence of surfers, but it was too dark to glean much (aside from again, the overwhelming presence of know, I think Esperanto may not be doing so well on becoming the global language).

Suddenly in the middle of all this, the entrance to the Four Seasons resort appeared, and after a security check (complete with sniffing dog) we were in an entirely different world. Actually, given the darkness, we’ll have to wait for tomorrow to discover quite how different. But we’ve been upgraded to a private villa with a somewhat unprocessable three thousand feet of space, including our own pool and four different seating areas to lie around it, two showers (indoor and outdoor), a bathtub (which when we arrived had been filled with floating petals) and a general feeling of staggering secluded opulence. We couldn’t really take it all in, and so didn’t try. We went for dinner at the hotel restaurant, on a vast and gorgeous sheltered terrace, where the only other diners left after ten minutes or so, leaving it all to us (it rained for a while, making it feel even more exotic). We ordered from the Indonesian side of the menu, which was excellent, although I swear that my tofu and mushroom main course was overwhelmingly reminiscent of meals Ally has made at home. The walk back to our villa took only about two minutes, but we were still asked twice whether we wanted to be driven in a buggy. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of things like that since the main notion seems to be that you stay at the resort and relax rather than explore (we’ll see how it works as a base for doing the latter). I would say we fell asleep in a state of happy bewilderment.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 5

One of the many nice touches at the Raffles is that, when they do the turndown service, instead of leaving a chocolate on the pillow they leave a little card with extracts from a book on the hotel’s storied past. One night it was about the party scene in the 1920’s and the ease of racking up huge drink bills (not much change as far as that goes - the place definitely applies its own pricing scheme); another night we got a memoir about a female guest from around the same period, and her feelings about staying here at a time when most of the other guests were men; on another occasion it was about the time Miley Cyrus embarrassed herself in the Long Bar. I may have misremembered one of those. Actually, although I can’t stop myself from reading online while on vacation, I still have mixed feelings about it. Our room is so secluded, with a deep, lush layer of foliage separating the veranda from the central courtyard, that you can barely tell in here whether it’s day or night, or this century or the last; it seems a shame to sully that privileged seclusion by lying on the bed reading about the latest contrived scandal (but then, to immediately contradict myself, I missed the New York Times website today, which was down for hours due to hackers).

Oh well. We walked this morning to the Little India district, to continue our exploration of Singapore’s underappreciated diversity. We came to two temples with some kind of group ceremony going on outside, and assumed we must have found it, so that we were surprised when the Indian flavour almost immediately ran out. On consulting the map we realized the real Little India was several blocks further on, so we must have found a Tiny India. The real Little India is a densely packed area of commerce and more temples, with some of the poorest looking streets we’ve seen so far, but unquestionably with a sense of real community. Even here though, Singapore’s construction mania is visible, with a big Indian Heritage Centre project in progress, which seems a bit ironic given how much of the local heritage must presumably have been knocked down to open up the site (as an aside, the city is building several new downtown subway stations – one quite close to Little India – which we can’t help but contrast with Toronto’s endless, unproductive debate on such matters).

We wandered back through some different streets, eventually arriving again at Clarke’s Quay, where we ended the evening of day two. We knew the area only came alive at night, but didn’t realize that was true to this extent – the place was all but deserted. We’d talked about going to a movie today, to continue our long tradition of checking out the movie experience in foreign destinations. But the movies playing here are almost exactly the same as those back home – Elysium, Jobs and so forth – and the multiplexes don’t look at all different either, so we didn’t think it would be a worthwhile use of time. Global uniformity has its pros and cons (in another example of this, posters inform us that Rihanna, Justin Bieber, The Killers and Metallica are all playing here in the next month or so – at least three of those four have also performed in Toronto this year). Anyway, we went back to the hotel, arriving once again almost exactly as a heavy rainstorm was breaking out. Our room was in the process of being cleaned (I think this place has the most meticulous housekeepers in the business) so we sat at another of the hotel’s many locations, the Courtyard Bar, and had a drink. Today was another day when I was more tired than Ally, and could have consumed juices and ginger beers and suchlike all day long – for a while today, I was pretty much just finishing one and then immediately buying another.

I mentioned previously how we’d quickly covered the downtown map from left to right, but that understated how much work it takes to explore everything in between – the more we walk, the more of it there seems to be. But we’ve done a pretty comprehensive job I think. In the evening, after our customarily extended afternoon break, we went to the Night Safari, apparently the only one of its kind: a whole zoo, geared towards nocturnal animals, open only after dark (currently meaning around 7.30 pm), hence theoretically allowing you to see the animals at their prime. Because it’s a bit of a distance from downtown we were going to take a bus, which Ally had meticulously researched, but not untypically for us we got tired of waiting for the bus and took a taxi instead. Anyway, we ended up leaving after most of the return buses had already gone; it felt like we were among those closing the place down, although we only did what you’re supposed to be doing. when you visit there.

The tour has two elements – a tram ride round the major exhibits (maybe many viewers only do this bit) and then various walking tours which cover some of the same enclosures from different angles as well as some other animals not visible from the tram. The darkness makes the walking tour somewhat unconventional, and in some cases – mostly smaller animals like deer or otter – it is indeed easier to imagine you’re seeing them much as they’d appear in the wild. With larger animals, it’s inherently harder to get past the constraints of their situation. We had some Indian food at one of the vending stations near the entrance and took another cab back.
We went for a final visit to the Long Bar, where one of the hostesses recognized us from before and gave us a Singpore Slingshaker, apparently as an apology for not remembering our name initially (not to be cynical, but they sell for just $2-  the only low-priced item within the whole Raffles complex -  so she’s presumably authorized to give away as many as she likes). It was quite empty tonight – it felt like we were closing that place down too. And the band upstairs was playing songs we’ve heard them play before. So I guess that all meant it was time to move on to Bali.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 4

Predictably by now, we were both awake well before 5 am, and we charted new ground by hitting some of the local breakfast spots before they’d even opened for business. Eventually we gave up on that and just caught a cab, traveling twenty minutes or so to the Jurong Bird Park. The driver commented several times that we’d have done better to come out after 10 am when the traffic was lighter, but by city standards it really wasn’t that bad – everything moves along efficiently, with an apparent high degree of road etiquette. On all our cab rides, the radio has been tuned to local English language stations, which sound almost exactly as chirpy and banal as all over the world, with the same bland playlists (the station this morning even had the same name as one of the Toronto stations – Kiss92). The Singapore morning traffic seems to consist more of general displacement across the city than of a big funnel into downtown, as in many other places. Outside the core, it’s a constant series of massive high rises, some of them quite visually striking and very few seeming rundown, and industrial strength – everything we saw speaks to the place as a thriving powerhouse.

We arrived at the Bird Park ten minutes or so after it opened, and had breakfast at a restaurant just by the entrance. For most of our visit, we had the place to ourselves. It’s apparently the largest bird park in Asia, and a mostly pleasant place to walk around for a couple of hours, although if you’ve ever been to a zoo, much of it can likely be imagined fairly accurately without actually going there. Some birds obviously fare better than others – they have hundreds of flamingoes for instance, all hanging out in an enormous space. On the other hand, close enough by to hear the happy flamingoes squawking away all day, a solitary shoebill was left to stand in his much more limited environment, with just a single stork or something for company, looking absolutely miserable. The poor shoebill was actually my favourite of the attractions. Other areas include the inaptly named “Parrot Paradise,” which actually seems closer to some kind of Parrot Hell, marked by bone-curdling screeching and aggressive confrontations; and yet another stunning artificial indoor waterfall. Supposedly, at the summit of the waterfall you could study all kinds of exotic birds feasting on fresh fruit – but once we got there, we found only the dullest and mangiest looking bird in the whole place. They also have a big performing space with big posters announcing the stars of the show, such as Sassy the cockatoo, Mr and Mrs Horn the toucans, Alfred the parrot, and Brian Dennehy (I made one of those up). Anyway, we didn’t stay for that.

It was filling up considerably when we left. We found a cab sitting right outside (our traditional vacation luck is turned all the way up on this trip) and came back to the Raffles, from where we explored some other areas of the preserved colonial core. Right across from the hotel there’s a former convent which now holds a collection of restaurants and bars; a little up from there you can find an old post office and stamp museum – these parts of town remind us very much of Bermuda, although I think the past is even better preserved here, looking as if it were freshly painted just yesterday: the difference is, in Singapore they’re just little enclaves of the past, easily overlooked unless you go looking for them, whereas Bermuda still insists on them as central to its present (by all accounts, a faltering economic and cultural strategy). But as an aside, the travel guides don’t really convey how varied and pleasurable it is to walk in Singapore (the heat being the main impediment) – the longer we’re here, the more we’re appreciating its understated diversity. Our walk also took in the site of a historical fort, Fort Canning; the burial site of a former Malay king; and a modern sculpture garden – as with everything here, all perfectly tended, and seemingly under-appreciated.

We kept our afternoon sleep shorter than the last few days, to be sure we’d make it to the Singapore Art Museum a couple of hours before closing time. The building used to be a mission, although in this case the conversion is only partially successful – it feels like there are just a few galleries, separated by too many odd corridors and functional spaces. It certainly shows some active curating though – the main current exhibition was about ways of engaging and representing with current events in the Middle East, and other rooms seemed concerned with stimulating children or the uninitiated (for example, through a gallery where none of the works had titles, encouraging visitors to write and put up their own). Again though, everything was only in English, which might seem here like a different form of cultural elitism. The last part of the exhibition is in a separate building across the street, including several rooms made up as 360 degree fantasy spaces; even requiring 3-D glasses in one case. Anyway, when the clock hit closing time at 7 pm, the staff all poured out of there and plainly couldn’t say too rapid a goodbye to the last few remaining guests.

We walked around a bit more, skirting some of the same neighborhoods from this morning and then wandering down to the river, The skyline looked spectacular tonight, and there was a general air of contentment and well-being. We came across a restaurant, Indochine, with a vast patio and a perfect view of all this – it seems to belong to a high-end regional chain, but it was exactly what we were looking for (strangely enough, just by circumstance, we hadn’t eaten Chinese food on the trip yet). We walked back from there, spending the last few minutes on our veranda. If this isn’t the best hotel we’ve ever stayed in – and it probably is that – it’s certainly the one where the ambiance most shaped our sense of the visit: Singapore would be great enough if experienced from a comfortable modern room (and there seems to be no shortage of those – I’ve seldom seen such a concentration of enormous hotels) but with the Raffles as a base, your sense of history and modernity, of secret places and stories winding around the steel and glass, is gloriously amplified…

Monday, August 26, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 3

We were both up at around 5 am, although Ally later went back to sleep for a while; we left the hotel a little later than yesterday, although still early by our historical vacation standards. We had breakfast in the same hotel bakery again (it’s not that we were trying to be dull – we just couldn’t find anywhere else in the immediate vicinity that worked as well) and then took a taxi to the Bukit Timah nature reserve, only about a fifteen minute ride, but once you get there a much larger slab than we saw yesterday of the original forest, now reduced to 0.2% of its former volume, or something like that.

The reserve is nicely arranged for walking, with a series of loops which you can add on incrementally, so you don’t need to commit yourself to more than you can handle. Naturally, we ended up doing all the trails indicated on the main map, which took about two and a half hours. It’s a bit of a work-out given the heat, and also because relatively little of it is ever flat, so you’re nearly always either steeply ascending or descending. At the start we were seeing a large number of mostly older locals sweating through their morning exercise, but they plainly know to come early, because when we exited at around 1.15, there was almost no one around at all. The forest is too dense to provide many views, with one main exception where you get a good look at the sweeping skyline, but we enjoyed just pushing ourselves along, and it’s good that it has an official sign to mark the summit, so you feel an appropriate sense of achievement. Fortunately too, the heat didn’t seem to keep rising too much today, given the looming prospect of rain, so the closing stretch felt almost cool by comparison (if only in relative terms, but when you’re doing such a walk at such temperatures, perception counts for a lot).

The forest has numerous signs warning against feeding the monkeys, but except for a few of them around the parking lot when we first showed up, we only saw one monkey the entire time (and barely any birds either – however, we had the almost constant background of cicada humming, often almost deafening, like a whole parking lot of car alarms). We were talking about this as we walked back to the road, and then suddenly we started to see monkeys everywhere – in particular, one otherwise nice-looking house seemed to be overrun with monkeys, to the point where they can presumably never open the windows or sit outside with food or anything like that. It might be a form of hell on earth, who knows. Anyway, our study of the monkeys was curtailed when an available taxi came by, and we decided to grab it. We were extremely lucky in this, because during the cab ride it started raining fairly heavily; the downpour lasted almost the exact duration of the ride. On the other side we walked round a bit and went into a nearby mall – Raffles City – where we found a Ben and Jerry’s in the food court, so we got a decadent snack there. It was looking like rain again, so we went back to the hotel for a while.
I mean, that was our intention, to go there for a while, but I ended up sleeping until almost 7 pm again – so for now I seem to be locked into sleeping in two roughly equal four-hour blocks of time, which I think I read once may make good sense from a physiological point of view, but isn’t so friendly to maximizing your city experiences (we’d talked about going to one of the galleries for the last couple of hours of opening time, but had to abandon that). Ally slept less than I did, but as it was raining heavily again for some of the time, she didn’t make an effort to wake me. Anyway, like last night, it wasn’t far off 8 pm when we left the hotel. We walked down to Arab Street, listed on the Frommers website as the number one Singapore attraction. As the name implies, it’s a thriving little area, dominated by an imposing mosque and populated by a squeeze of stores and restaurants, mostly supporting the main theme but also with some odd interlopers (e.g. “the Sleepy Kiwi”). It’s probably a more colourful neighborhood during the day, but it was fun to walk around, and we ate at a Lebanese themed restaurant, Beirut Grill, which was very good.

We walked back and went into the Long Bar again. The same band was playing upstairs, covering the likes of Hotel California. Like the other night, the place seemed to have unusually rapid turnover for a bar. But maybe that’s something about Singapore more generally – Ally read that the average visitor only stays 3.5 days, so our five nights virtually qualifies as moving in (at the airport when we arrived, we were surprised how few of the passengers seemed to be ending their journeys here - judging by the luggage carousel, virtually everyone was transferring). And moving round day to day, it’s unusually difficult to get a sense of who might be native to the country, as opposed to being a visitor or recent immigrant (as an aside, we’ve seen numerous cases where an older, like much older, white man is accompanied by a young Asian woman, tagging along in a way that just looks flagrantly transactional, but I doubt this comes even remotely close to the volumes one might see in some other Asian countries).
Even the Raffles, which sells its heritage to the hilt (I doubt that many hotels could stock a gift shop with so much memorabilia about themselves), is something of an illusion in that much of its current state only goes back as far as a big refurbishment in the late 80’s. It’s on “Beach Road,” but it takes quite an effort of imagination to believe that this was so-named because it was originally on a beach – it’s far removed from that now, given subsequent land reclamation. And legend has it that the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot at the hotel – some stories say in the Long Bar. Well, who knows? But as we sat on our veranda at the end of the night talking about all this, we agreed it was all a myth well worth surrendering to.