Saturday, August 5, 2017

Home Time

With just one full day in Singapore, we decided to focus our attention on the Gardens by the Bay.
The MRT transit system is just like the London Underground but cleaner and quieter. The automated trains (no drivers), run on a continuous loop between stations and arrive punctually, every 3-5 minutes. There is no gap between the doors of the train and the doors of the platform, so entry and exit is seamless and there are a series of cartoon characters to remind you of the rules –

Hush hush Hannah, my favourite 
I don’t think I’ve ever felt safer in a city than I do here. There are signs of the sensible rules everywhere, which seems like overkill but clearly works because everyone seems to be completely law abiding (if you ignore pedestrian crossings – no one stops for them). There is no vandalism, no littering; people don’t push or shove, everything is orderly and calm.

Maybe there is a sinister side to Singapore that we haven’t seen but certainly on the outside it seems like the utopian version of a dystopian future city.
Extending the futuristic theme, the giant, artificial trees in the Gardens by the Bay tower over the Marina area. With a skeleton of metal, the exterior of these beautiful, triffid like structures is covered with plants, blending technology with nature, almost seamlessly. When you walk through them on the Skywalk it’s like being part of a scene from Avatar.

We spent almost 5 hours in the gardens and the time just whizzed past. Apart from the beauty of the plants and flowers, the opportunity to be within the climate controlled interior of the domes was too good to pass up. Singapore is hot!
The Flower Dome is home to species from all over the world. Taine even spotted some eucalypts and kangaroo paw in the Australian garden. At the moment they have an orchid display as a central feature; the colours are truly amazing.

The Cloud Forest spirals around a central core of forest plants that cover every climactic region on the planet, from the Tropics to the Arctic and it is all self supporting, both in the structure of the plants (no metal girders etc) and the environment. Part of the continuous evaporation cycle includes the world’s highest indoor waterfall- it’s truly awe inspiring.

Near the gardens is the Marina Bay Sands area where they are busy erecting a Grand Prix track and spectator stands. This sector is home to the rich and famous. The shops – Hermes, Dior etc, etc, had more posh looking attendants than they did customers but maybe they were all in the casino or by the pool during the afternoon.
We took the MRT to the Chinatown markets before going back to our hotel for a swim and recovery session. We were hoping for some shopping opportunities but haven’t really seen anything we want to buy. Good quality in Singapore is very expensive, poor quality is the same price as the junk we get at home.

So enchanted were we with the gardens that we decided to go back to see the trees lit up at night and thank goodness we did. If they were spectacular by day, words cannot describe them by night! Solar panels on top of the trees provide the energy for the nightly light show and it's accompanied by reasonably non intrusive music. After the display you can stroll back through the gardens to the train station or along the walkway to the harbour.

I think we discovered the dark side of Singapore today in the form of the crass, gaudy, over priced Sentosa Island. This is one giant theme park with all sorts of activities, mostly ticketed. You even have to pay to enter the island, a bit rich since that's just a preamble to the fleecing you're about to get when you arrive! You're also encouraged to buy 'fun passes', a discounted (apparently), pre selected list of activities that you will do when you get there. We had seen that the Skyline Luge was running on Sentosa. This is the same company that runs the NZ luges at Rotorua and Queenstown so Taine and Geoff were keen to try that. We also chose the Segway tour because, you know, everyone needs to ride a Segway in their life! 

I found a bench under a tree to sit and read my book while they luged. After nearly an hour I was starting to wonder if they'd fallen off or maybe the ride was so good they'd gone back up for another. No such luck. Apparently, 'the worst luge track ever' and a 'disgrace to the Skyways name'. Bummer. On to the Segway, where the instructor was busy on his phone. After some wait, he proceeded to 'train' the three of us, all the while keeping his thumbs on the keypad. Geoff asked if they could mind our bags. No, but there was a locker available- minimum price $4. Unfortunately Geoff only had a $10 note and the machine didn't give change. Pity we hadn't kept the bags on our backs because the advertised 'fun ride' on the Segway went for exactly 3 minutes- 400 metres down the road, turn around and back again. Double bummer. 

So, hot and bothered and so ripped off by now that we couldn't face the inevitable disappointment of the 3rd activity, we decided to cut our losses and return to the train. As bad luck would have it, just as we arrived they announced that a malfunction had caused the train to stop running and we would have to queue for a shuttle bus. Queue we did and then boarded it with about 3 times as many people as it could possibly be legal to carry, in 32C heat and with no air conditioning. Instead of express like the train, it stopped at every stop where, unbelievably, more people squished in. By the time we got back to Vivo City we were drenched in sweat and close to heat stroke. The coolness of the shopping centre was a welcome relief but because it was Saturday the place was packed and it was virtually impossible to get anything to eat so we decided to collect our luggage and head to the airport (very) early and have dinner there. Having only broken our no taxi rule once on this trip, we used our Ezy cards to get back to the airport on the subway. This was no mean feat with two line changes, four big bags and our backpacks but it only cost $1.72 each so the angst of the Sensota money wasting was somewhat assuaged. 
Bus trip
Unfortunately the food at the airport turned out to be just as expensive and equally disappointing as the Sensota activities, so here we are charging our batteries and waiting for our gate to open.
Today was probably the only unpleasant experience in an otherwise brilliant 5 week journey. 
It's a sign to go home!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A rose by any other name

We spent our last full morning in London doing more walking. Our average everyday has been well over 15K steps and today was no exception. Regent Park is only a stones’ throw from Camden and provides a picturesque place to exercise. While Geoff ran round the perimeter of the park, the kids and I went back to Primrose Hill where they ran up and down the hill and I people watched. At the top of the hill there’s seating, around which is a quote from Yeats; “I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”. On this beautiful morning you can see why Londoners flock here to picnic at the weekend. It’s like the pinnacle of the city with views out across the whole cityscape. At mid morning on a working day, there are hundreds of people in the park but it’s not at all crowded. There are dogs of every shape and size, making me wonder where they all go when they’re not in the park. Likewise the nannies, with their accents from every corner of the world, calling to children who answer in very British accents, joggers, yogis, serious and not so serious athletes…and tourists, mostly like me, recording the view on their screens, except for one little girl who was sketching the cityscape perfectly with pencil and paper.
Primrose Hill
In the afternoon we took the train to Wimbledon and walked another 20 000 steps looking at the area where Sophie has been living and working.

The first time we were in London we toured the Globe Theatre. We fell in love with the dedication to Shakespeare’s theatre design and vowed to come back in the Summer to see a show in performance. For a couple of Theatre/Drama teachers, watching Shakespeare performed live at the Globe is the ultimate and tonight’s performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” did not disappoint. We had great seats, booked the day the season opened in February, on the top tier, right at the front. From here we had a fantastic view, not only of the stage but of the of the city skyline, the moon, jet trails and planes passing overhead and the rest of the audience, including the groundlings (people who pay for standing room only in the courtyard). It’s quite a surreal feeling to be in one of the most greatest cities in the world, sitting in a theatre built to 16C specifications, watching a play written by someone who died hundreds of years ago, while the 21C flies above you.

This production of “Much Ado About Nothing” was re contexualised to be set in Mexico and it worked perfectly. The stagecraft was incredible – the horses were wire sculptures ‘ridden’ by actors on stilts, the back set provided several levels of entry and exit and the fourth wall breaking was so effective it nearly ended in the demise of a few groundlings who couldn’t get out of the way fast enough! It was a visual feast and the addition of some contemporary music and dance completed the sense of transcended time. I was worried Taine wouldn’t cope with 3 hrs of Shakespeare but he was as enthralled as the rest of us.

We walked back to the tube through the Borough Markets. Even at 11.30 on a Tuesday night the bars and restaurants were buzzing. Eerie to think that just a couple of months ago this was the scene of terror and fear.

With a late afternoon flight scheduled from Heathrow we had just a few hours to kill in London on our last morning and we were lucky enough to spend them with another one of our wanderlust students. Cooper has been busking his way around Europe for a couple of months and it was wonderful to catch up with his adventures over a coffee at the Camden Lock. It makes you realise how small the world really is.

And then it was time to say goodbye to Sophie as well. Dressed like a turtle, she’s off to Croatia/Switzerland/France/Germany and other places from the atlas. Such is the price you pay for raising confident, independent children. It’s been glorious to touch base with her in the middle of her journey.

With nowhere to store our luggage, the easiest thing to do was go to the airport early, a fairly expensive business because our Oysters were empty and had to be topped up just to get to the wretched Heathrow Express. Check in was simple but then our plane was delayed so we had quite a bit of time to waste the rest of our stirling and to fret about making our connection in Zurich. The short hop to Switzerland was dreadful. It was very old plane with lots of people on it, most of whom seemed to be suffering from a combination of the plague and a twitching disease that caused them to bounce backwards and forwards in the seat in front of me. I was tempted to use the rock hard cheese roll snack to disable some of my traveling companions. I had planned to stock up on Swiss chocolate during our transfer in Zurich but there was no time for that as we ran (yet again) to make our gate. We boarded with just minutes to spare, dripping with sweat and looking forward to another 12 hours of close confinement. As it turned out, this was probably our easiest flight; the service was good and because it was late, we all slept for a few hours. Having crossed yet another couple of time zones and lost most of Thursday we arrived in Singapore at 5pm with just enough of the day left to wander through Little India, eat a delicious meal of chili chicken and peppered beef and fall into a stupor in our beautifully soft hotel bed.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

London Town

I’d forgotten how much I loved London until we found ourselves on the street outside the Camden tube station. On a Sunday afternoon the whole place was a buzzing, bristling microcosym of humanity – people of all nationalities and walks of life, some so bizarre looking that they could have come from another planet and yet here they seem perfectly normal. London makes Melbourne seem suburban.
Outside our apartment in Camden
We had an interesting travel day, starting at Dublin airport where the queue to check in on Aer Lingus stretched out the doors. We thought we’d given ourselves plenty of time but after almost 90 minutes in the queue we reached the desk with just 5 minutes to spare before check in closed. Prematurely, we were just laughing with relief when the check in person called her supervisor over because there was a problem with Geoff’s ticket. He was sent to another counter to have it investigated where they told him the name (Demanser) on his ticket didn’t match the name on his passport ( De Manser) and that it was unlikely he could catch the plane because the check in was closing. He told them his bag had already been checked (almost true because mine and Taine’s had) so they gave the ticket the all clear and we did another Amazing Race run for the boarding gate.

The flight to London is a short hop, just 55 minutes but clearly the whole queue thing had rattled us a bit because we let our guard down on arrival and got conned by the Heathrow Express spruiker in the baggage claim area who convinced us that, given how much luggage we were carting, taking the Express into the city would be a much better option than the Tube. Clearly he knew quite well (as we should’ve because Sophie had explicitly told us but we hadn’t listened well enough) that we would still have to get the tube once we got to the city and that actually, taking the Express would leave us at Paddington (aka known as “Suckertown”) with two changes  to Camden – for a cost of 22£ each, when we could just as easily have taken the tube to Piccadilly with one change for 3£. Bloody hell; I hate that, almost as much as I hate how many times Sophie is going to make ‘express’ jokes from now on!

Anyway, that’s old news. The best thing to do with travel faux pas is to file them for future reference and move forward.
Our apartment in Camden is almost great. It’s right above the market, around the corner from Camden Lock and just metres from the train station. It’s not the 2 bedroom apartment pictured in the advertisement on (that we’ve paid for), it’s a one bed with fold out couch but this is a good bonding opportunity for Sophie and Taine. The very loud R and B from the bar next door until 4am in the morning is entertaining and it means we don’t have to be woken by our neighbours taking their bike down the stairs at 6 because we're still awake! And the sweet, sweet smell of marijuana floating through the windows definitely covers the smell from the garbage left over from the market. It’s completely splendid.

After a cup of tea to recover from the shock of the express train rip off and 2 bed that’s actually only one discovery, we hopped on the tube and went to Embankment to catch up with one of our ex students who is nannying in London this year. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching kids grow into confident, adventurous young adults so it was amazing to catch up with Tayla in her new environment and see how well she’s thriving. We had Pimms and chicken waffles at the Underbelly Festival on Southbank and then walked back over the Waterloo Bridge. The view from there at night time is just spectacular – Tower Bridge, Westminster, The Eye, all visible in the same view finder.

The next morning we took the Sophie Barr walking tour of Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park on our way to Euston to get the train to Harry Potter World. The amount of open green space in London is incredible. From inside the park it’s hard to imagine the breadth of the city outside. We ate lunch just near the station and Taine was very impressed to find deck chairs set up for the office workers to watch cricket on a big screen.

Watching the cricket

Last time we visited London we missed out on tickets to Harry Potter so this time it was one of the first things I booked. When they told us that the self guided tour could take 3 or 4 hours, I was a bit sceptical but sure enough, we were so engrossed in the sets, costumes, props and the information behind them that 3 and 1/2 hours flew past. We had lots of fun dressing up and riding broomsticks across the green screen (although we drew the line at paying 25£ to have a copy of the photos!), drinking butter beer and eating Bertie Bott’s. It’s amazing to think that the child actors actually grew up on this set in Leavesden; what an incredible learning environment!  My favourite bits were the Great Hall, Diagon Alley and the incredible model of the Hogwarts that they used to film all the castle scenes. Who knew all that action took place in a really big doll's house. Real magic! 

Too much butter beer

The only down side to the day came on the way home in McDonalds while Taine was feeding his burger addiction. A man, I think the manager, approached us in a friendly way because he thought we were Canadian- a simple mistake given that we’re such nice people- and... Geoff was wearing a shirt with CANADA on it. We explained that actually we were Australian. This launched him into sermon about how Australia is the best place on earth (conversation going well so far) because our government has balls like rural America (our eyebrows rise) and keeps the muzzies (sp) out so we don’t end up with a whole lot of cappuccinos (awkward smiles turn to frowns). In fact, he says, his own cousin has been to America and had his photo taken with the leader of the KKK so he knows what he’s talking about. Wowsers. (By this stage I have a warning grip on Geoff's arm communicating that a silent stare is the best response) This xenophobic idiot didn’t even have the sense to notice the irony that his own skin was brown, he was born in France and had an Italian accent. Like I said, London is a microcosym and so of course, some of it is scum but it did upset me that this piece of flotsam saw Australia as a racist haven.

We had plans of picking up theatre tickets at TKTS  but we were too foot weary so we settled for salad and chicken wings from M and S and an evening spent listening to the action in Inverness St.