Friday, July 20, 2012

A Day in Singapore

It's nearly 7:00 p.m. the next day as I write.  I've spent the day in bed out of exhaustion and knee joint pain but our day in Singapore was worth it.  Although JB (Johor Bahru, Malaysia) is separated from Singapore by only a causeway across the Johor Strait, sister cities one could say, travel between them is more complicated than moving between the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul because one is also crossing an international border.  Still, the crossing each time was easier than when our friends Mo and Bob who live near Chicago came by bus to Winnipeg and were held up at the US-Canada border for about seven hours.

Thursday was chosen as our day to go because Bena's mom had to be taken to the Singapore airport in the morning.  It just made sense to piggyback our trip onto hers.  She's gone to Thailand for a five-day seaside vacation with her niece.  Because Bena and Boy were both working, Konrad had the honour of driving us and did admirably.  He might have stayed the day with us in Singapore but he had to teach English to a few kids in the early evening, before we would return and so we would be on our own.  Could we do it?

Here is a map of our day's journey: http://goo.gl/maps/s0Hhg
A/G is the Malaysian side of the border crossing.
B = Airport
C = Changi Museum
D = City Hall MTR (city train) station
E = Raffles Hotel
F = Kranji

It took two hours to get to the airport, mostly because of an accident on the freeway that had traffic badly backed up.  I found it very interesting, though, especially watching the lorries and commercial vehicles.  The trucks most like our pick-ups had two government stickers on the backs of them: one listed their maximum speed allowed but the other was most curious.  It said "PAX" and then a number.  Someone suggested that that was the number of passengers allowed in them--most had men sitting in the back--but that didn't make sense because the number varied greatly, from 5 to 13, even when the vehicles were identical.

We had breakfast at the airport before Konrad returned to JB. After he left, our first destination would be the Changi Museum.  My Lonely Planet map showed that it was quite close to the airport and we were discussing how to get there.  Tom thought we should walk; Konrad had recommended the bus but in the end I won and we took a cab.  It was most efficient and cost less than $10.  We had a reservation for high tea at Raffles Hotel for 3:30 and it was already noon.  We didn't need to waste time getting lost or finding our way more than necessary.

The Changi Museum is a tribute to the inmates of the Japanese POW (prisoner of war) camp at Changi during World War Two.  I've read so much about Japanese POW camps and had a great-uncle who spent the entire war in one and died not long after returning home because of the beriberi he developed in the camp so when I learned about this museum, it became one of the two things at the top of my list to do in Singapore.  I thought we'd see the actual camp but alas, it was just a building with well-arranged artifacts and a lot of anecdotes from former prisoners and explanatory notes.  Still, it was good.

What was most moving for me was the replication of the chapel created at Changi by the prisoners, complete with pews and altar.  One of the prisoners had painted murals from the life of Jesus on the walls of the chapel.  What was most moving about these was the messages they gave in the middle of the worst that man can do to man: "Peace on earth to men of goodwill"; "This is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for many"; and most poignant of all, "Father forgive them.  They know not what they do."  One third of all who were put into the camp died (including the artist); many, like my great-uncle, didn't die in the camp but were so sick they never recovered and yet they could remember the importance of forgiveness.

Indeed, the museum, though sharing the horrors of the camp, focused on the positive ways the horrors were dealt with.  There were the hidden radios that caught BBC news broadcasts enabling the men, women and children (civilians as well as soldiers were interned here) to stay abreast of the progress of the war.  The chapel had a choir; many artists drew and painted their experiences and observations in camp; a theatre group was formed to provide entertainment and factories were created to provide for the various needs of the camp: a rubber factory used old tires to produce and repair shoes, a brush factory which made brooms, toothbrushes and the like, a tailoring shop to mend clothes and, when they wore out, simple loincloths; a soap factory and others I can't remember.  I wish we could have taken photos but that wasn't allowed.

The other must-do item on my list for Singapore was to have high tea at the Raffles Hotel.  The Raffles figures prominently in movies and books I've seen and read about the area.  When I had asked the taxi driver how long it would take to get from the museum, he said half an hour.  To be on the safe side, I allowed for an hour.  Our reservation was for 3:30 and we finished the museum just before 2:30.  So now, how to get downtown to the hotel?  Konrad had recommended taking a bus to the MRT.  When I asked at the museum reception, they said the Number Two bus would take us all the way to the hotel but when I asked how long it would take, we didn't have time for that.  What about taking the MRT?  That would be quicker but we'd still have to take the Number Two bus first.  When I had made our reservation for tea, I was told that if we were more than 15 minutes late, our reservation would be forfeit so time really mattered.  And it was raining.

To me, the logical thing to do was take a taxi to the MRT station.  Who knew how long we'd have to wait for the bus?  But even taking a taxi wasn't a simple matter.  We had to get one of the museum store clerk to phone for a cab for us but just then a busload of Japanese tourists lined up to buy his wares and I had to wait for a piece of paper from the clerk with our taxi number written on it.  Ticket in hand, we headed to the taxi stand and there came a taxi.  Yay! Except that someone else got into it.  Hey!  That's not right!  But he insisted and what did we know?  When the next taxi arrived, we rushed to get in it but when the driver saw the number on the ticket he protested that his wasn't the right cab.  He could get in trouble for taking the wrong passengers but when we explained about the previous cab, he agreed that perhaps things got mixed up and agreed to taking us.  Whew!

In all our public transit conveyances, the seats were full and people were standing.  There were seats reserved for certain people and with my braces, I qualified but I wasn't going to ask someone to give up their seat.  To my surprise, on each occasion, someone relinquished their seat for me.  Did they see my braces?  My grey hair?  My exhaustion as the day wore on?  The perspiration dripping from my face?  Didn't matter.  I was grateful.

Tom got talking to a Chinese man who insisted that we should get off at the City Hall and not Bugis Station as we were told.  I was suspicious of directions people gave because back at the airport, when Tom had been asking about how to get to the museum, one of the women had suggested we go to the City Hall which my map showed was far, far away from both the airport and the museum.  But when I consulted my map again, the City Hall station was indeed close to Raffles and I couldn't find the Bugis Station at all, so City Hall it was.

The problem was that the train emptied into a large underground mall.  How were we going to find our way to the hotel?  "Just ask!" Tom advised but I was loathe to do so because I love the challenge of figuring out my own way.  In the end, however, we did have to ask more than once.

As a colonial hotel, I had pictured the Raffles in my mind to be something like Hotel Fort Garry or Banff Springs Hotel--something castle-like.  It wasn't, though I recognised it as soon as I saw a bit of it peeking out from all the steel and glass construction around it and its appearance certainly fit its tropical location better than what I expected.  The dress code is strict.  Men have to wear long pants and collared shirt; women dress, skirt or long pants, no sandals.  I'd heard of people not allowed admittance when they didn't pass muster so Tom and I had brought clothes and shoes just for this one meal.  Still, I was nervous.  Would they let us in with my backpack?  If we looked crumpled?  They did.

It was wonderful!  A three-tiered plate with miniature sandwiches and sweet treats was brought to our table, the tea served in small but heavy silver pots--and poured for us.  There was also a buffet of fruit, cakes, tarts, scones, bread and butter pudding and, to my surprise and Tom's delight, Chinese dim sum.  Tom liked the bread and butter pudding best, after the dim sum and went back for seconds.  My favourite were the scones with jam and clotted cream (a cream so thick you have to spread it).

I was unsure whether Tom would enjoy high tea--he's such a practical guy and $60 per person for little bite-sized pieces of food and tea is a bit much but he didn't utter a single complaint and seemed to enjoy himself.  Raffles is also where the Singapore Sling was created and I had suggested that perhaps Tom would prefer that to high tea.  It cost $30 for one drink!  Instead, he had that as well.  I had a sip and it was good.  Apparently the drink was invented in the 1910s when it wasn't considered proper for women to drink in public.  The bar tender at the Long Bar at Raffles created the pink, fruity drink to help make it more comfortable for the women to imbibe.  The Raffles staff are very proud that they still make their drinks from scratch rather than using a mix--and Tom got his "gold toothpick" as the skewer that held a cherry and wedge of pineapple together at the top of the glass.

I had planned to break my diet for this meal long before we left Canada and thoroughly enjoyed doing so, but I got full surprisingly fast and it's been so long since I've had such rich food that I started to feel sick.  In fact, I had two long visits to the toilet.  I had hoped to go on the Night Safari near the zoo, where tigers, elephants and 150 other animals are out to play but I didn't have it in me anymore.  I agreed that it would be nice to wander around downtown a bit but I barely had the energy to get back to the MRT.  We phoned Bena and asked her to pick us up at the border earlier than planned.

She had given us very specific instructions about what to do once we got off the train at Kranji where we were to catch a bus to the Malaysian side of the border.  We'd have to get off and on the bus several times as we progressed.  "Just follow the crowd and make sure you get on the very same bus you left!"  Both Singapore and Malaysia want to process your passage no matter which direction you're crossing so when we got to the Singapore side of the border, off we piled.  But we'd been at the back of the bus and I'm a slow walker.  It wasn't hard to follow the crowd because there were many buses spewing passengers into the same place.  Up the escalators, across the broad hallway, through the wicket gate one at a time for one's moment with the immigration officer, passport returned, down more escalators to the buses.

But the buses as the foot of the escalators didn't include ours.  Ours was yellow with a big Columbia Tire ad on the side.  Had it left without us because we were so slow?  What would we do if it had?  Then I had a thought.  "Follow me!" I said to Tom without explanation and then took off.  Yes!  There was another whole area full of buses and hundreds of people rushing to form into five different lines.  Which line was ours?  How could we know?  I stood there confused.  "Just ask!" Tom said again.

Thankfully, a man in the right line saw the ticket I was holding and let us in the line ahead of him.  How kind! When I asked, he explained that it didn't have to be the exact same bus we had been on, so long as it was the same bus line.  Oh.  Whew!  And so after some time of snaking through the line, we were back on a bus, headed across the causeway.  We still had to negotiate Malaysian immigration, find our way to the train station and specifically the Starbucks in the station and I had to muster the impossible energy to do all that walking but we made it and to Tom's delight, the Starbucks was right next to the kiosk that sold a bun he had fallen in love with.  I got tea, he got a bun and five minutes later Bena appeared.

I was so tired I couldn't even carry my own backpack or tea upstairs to our room when we got "home," and I went straight to bed, sleeping for a full 12 hours before I got up--and then only to sit in bed until even that was too tiring and I went back to sleep again.

Still, it was worth it all.  I only wish I'd had more energy to see more of Singapore.

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