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.