Monday, 26 November 2007

Blog 29 Last delights in Singapore

On Saturday we spent the day on Sentosa Island, taking the MRT (mass rapid transport) in the direction of the Harbour Front (and my can they show the world how undergrounds can be run - clean, fast, cheap). The Sentosa Express takes you across the causeway to this island totally devoted to pleasure and tourism. I reeled back at the thought of spending the day at an Alton Towers, but then decided that it was probably closer to Centre Parks and infinitely cheaper.
We decided to limit our options and chose to go to Underwater World - absolutely brilliant with its tunnel beneath and beside a huge variety of creatures, Butterfly World - fantastic to see these exotic varieties floating happily out of doors in a huge enclosed area rather than indoors as they do in Britain, the Nature Trail with interesting signs pointing out the flora and finally our last chance to sit on a hot palm fringed sandy beach. The water was wonderfully refreshing in what must be mid 90s heat though it is very odd to bathe on a beach where you can see some of the vast numbers of tankers and other large ships passing not far offshore as they use the huge dockyards nearer town.
Back on the mainland our evening meal was taken from the excellent street vendors in Chinatown.

Finally on Sunday we headed to the Jurong Bird Park. It is beautifully kept and we could get astonishingly close to a great variety of really impressive birds of every size and colour. Signage was full of really interesting facts that kept you wanting to know more and go round just one more corner. The flamingo and pelican lakes are beautiful and we spent time just sitting and taking it all in as well as moving from area to area in case we missed anything.
We then took the MRT right round the north of the island to give ourselves time to rest in the cool and watched as the heavens finally opened. The rainy season returned just as we were leaving having given us a few days space to savour so many of Singapore's jewels in comfort and sun.

The 14 hour flight back home was a smooth one, though I have discovered a new form of torture. Just as you are dropping off the sleep and move in the seat your right hip trips the movie channel on again and the lights of it bring you straight back to wakefulness. It took countless repeats of this before I dozily realised I could remove the controller from the seat and get some peace. Richard managed some decent sleep though so one of us remained sane at least.

It has been the most amazing time to get to appreciate some more of the world's diverse wonders and as jetlag sets in leaves us only too glad to have had this chance.

Blog 28 Singapore's other temptations

Friday 23rd was our chance to visit Chinatown - a huge area, perhaps architecturally unlike anything we had seen in China, but in mood and liveliness certainly similar.

There are long streets set with pastel coloured old buildings with Chinese touches. The street markets are crammed full of tempting stalls and there are wonderful temples to be found. (East meets west just inside the door of the temple)

The Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple, is similar in style to the Chettiar one with its many coloured figurines heaped in layers and large cow effigies representing Shiva. We discovered that yesterday's ceremony was a purification one, encouraging the expulsion of evil and ill health.

The Jamae Chulia Mosque one the 1820's site of an earlier one is calm and dignified and welcoming and finally we went to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. This is a towering red and gold edifice, with serenely beautiful interiors, as various buddhas and myriads of miniature ones set into the walls glow in several temple rooms on different floors. But the highlight was a perfect orchid garden on the rooftop surrounding a small building housing a prayer wheel.

The tooth itself was in the museum and shut until later that day but we couldn't stay to wait to see it.
As we had spent more time than planned enjoying shopping and a light lunch we decided to postpone the planned visit to the Jurong Bird Park and go instead to Orchard Road (Singapore's Oxford Street writ large and apparently where the missing population in other streets could be instantly discovered). We were surprised to find that prices here were similar to those in the UK as elsewhere is generally much cheaper, though admittedly we were never up to checking out every store.
Back for a rest and to freshen up for the big Raffles experience.

We walked over to the main entrance foyer to see what that was like inside and yes, it is spectacularly lovely and in a world of its own, with its Somerset Maughan hunting ground of the Writers' Bar and tiffen available if you want it in the afternoon. But we were there for the famous (and delicious) 'Singapore Sling' in the Long Bar (as are so many other tourists) and dinner later. The Long Bar, with its lines of constantly swaying palm fans and astonishing mounds of monkey nut shells all over the floor thrown down as you eat the nuts with your cocktail was suitably shadowy, though I didn't feel a novel coming on as too many of us there were obviously just lookers-on rather than real live performers. Dinner was set in the vast palm-treed courtyard, complete with singer and band a vast number of waiters but there were sadly two missing ingredients which took the edge off the experience. Fish was available but cooked without any flair to a dullness I hadn't experienced anywhere before and other diners were thin on the ground (though now we know why). Richard struggled manfully with a small hairy crab, but both of us were left feeling hungry and decided to go elsewhere for desert. What a wasted opportunity. Perhaps during the rainy season the tourists are too few to make the effort for, or perhaps they just need to find some new cooks. Anyway 20/10 for looks and 1/10 for achievement but still well worth seeing.
We had the tiramisu we needed at a very strange new area called Chijmes. It is a hugely lively series of individual restaurants covering every continent and seemed to be the place that everyone who wasn't at Raffles had rushed to. All this is beautifully set in the grounds of a converted elegant white church and the church itself is now used as a venue for weddings and parties generally. However, it felt uncomfortably to me like an altar to Mammon which is perhaps appropriate for Singapore's mass materialism but it was sad to find such a beautiful church no longer used for prayer.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Blog 27 - to Singapore

The last leg of our journey and finding it hard to tear ourselves away from New Zealand and our friends I personally was feeling little but indifference to this bit I have to admit. The journey of 3 hrs flight to Sydney, a hour or so's wait there and 7 hrs onwards to Singapore arriving 3am NZ time was not something I particularly relished. In spite of my cold crescendoing to dramatic heights in all possible ways and presumably being generously donated to other passengers sharing my airspace and a tortured drop into Singapore as I hoped my eardrums would stand up to the pressure we arrived safely and a luxurious taxi ride to the hotel helped to smooth us down.

I have to admit that I am really enjoying Singapore. I spent yesterday morning bobbing along gently beside Richard in a little cloud of bemused fluff as we strolled towards the waterfront, visiting St Andrew's Cathedral (simple elegance and lovely interior), passing the English Cricket Club, the Law Courts and the Asian Museum (all classical and elegant buildings) and at the waterfront being confronted by the strange mix of restaurants in Flemish style old buildings standing in front of the towering high rises behind.

But somehow the spaces work, the flowers and trees are beautiful, all is spotless and thoughtfully restrained and my muzzy head began to enjoy just being here. It is comfortably warm and the air conditioning is generally refreshing rather than freezing contrast. From the waterfront we decided that a river cruise of half and hour would mean fresh breeze and little effort and that proved to be a perfect choice.
(this elegant Renaissance-style building houses the internet cafe from which this comes)
We rested back at the hotel and refreshed went to walk in the beautiful park at Fort Canning. It is exotically tropical but has a series of noticeboards along the walk giving really interesting details of history and flora. To our surprise we found a cottage built for Raffles in his last days at the top of the hill. Unpretentious but with lovely views and setting. We descended the hill on the other side to get to the Chettiar Hindu Temple and found to our pleasure that there was a festival of some sort in full swing. You could tell by the deafening cacophony coming from its doors; a mix of bagpipes and animal slaughter would perhaps best describe it. But it proved to be two trumpeters (of sorts) and two drummers - and I think the idea of going at it full blast was to leave the brain unable to think of worldly or any thoughts and get into the mood of focusing on what was going on. Anyway it seemed to work and as we watched the ritual of a stone cow (I think) being washed and then covered with red flowers or berries and later a white powder and then rewashed as a flaming dish was held up now and again to mark the need for worshipers to raise their hands in prayer the sounds seemed to follow a change in ritual, either guiding or following it. It was in fact mesmerising (though maybe I was semi-mesmerised anyway) and the rich colour and sense of devotion was very impressive. The outside of this temple, open at the sides with pale green columns, was covered with colourful figures beautifully depicted.

Change of mood as we stopped off for iced teas at Hooters at Clarke Quay - most of the restaurants (and streets for that matter) seem pretty deserted during the day time, maybe because this is officially the rainy season -though thankfully not today. Hooters describes itself as 'delightfully tacky, yet unrefined' and Richard certainly enjoyed the mini shorts and tight tea-shirted waitress.

Back to rest again and then we decided to eat at Little India but popped in to check out Raffles Hotel on the way to see if we would need to book for a meal. It is far more lovely than I'd expected. A creation of white colonnades and total elegance, set around open courtyards. It is dressed for Christmas in the most sumptuous swags of gold and red and the prices for meals look affordable so we'll head back there for Friday evening I hope.

We changed the tone completely by going to The Banana Leaf Restaurant - where food is slapped down directly onto the place mats/plates of banana leaves. It is eaten by hand (or spoon and fork if you feel cowardly) with gusto and was absolutely delicious, though by that point my cold which was relieved by the curry, but not giving me much eating space admitted defeat on finishing all the goodies. We walked back thankfully through the lively night market of Little India and had another wonderful night's sleep.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Blog 26 Sunday 18th November onwards Auckland continued

On Sunday and Monday we had a chance to spend some quality time with Mum's best friend, Daphne. Miraculously she looks no older than when we came over last time (12 years ago?) but she is suffering from lack of hearing now. However, by keeping things simple in her flat and then walks along the seashore we seemed to have no problem at all communicating and it was good to reminisce with someone who remembers my parents so vividly. It was lovely to see her again.

We also managed to fit in a long walk up 'One Tree Hill' (though sadly the tree had to be cut down recently) which has a glorious panorama of the city in all directions and meeting Valerie's neighbours who had just returned from a week in Fiji greatly refreshed.

On Tuesday we spent the morning really enjoying the Auckland Museum, which, although more dated than Te Papa, has a really fine collection of Maori pieces and extremely high quality of explanations for the visit. Their 'Landmarks' exhibition which shows European design and craftsmanship and fashion through the centuries was brilliantly put together and the reasons fashions changed were suddenly evident too. The natural history floor was full of things to learn about New Zealand and we were fascinated by a video on Mangrove swamps which explained so much of what we'd seen and wondered about in Fiji. Richard spent a good deal of time on the War Memorial floor and was very impressed by it.

To our delight we then met up with Rene and Esme's son Gabriel, who has just finished his music audio recording course in Auckland. It was good to see him after so long and again strange to meet someone who is on the verge of his life and career after seeing him as a bouncing youngster last time. I do hope we have persuaded him to come out to the UK and spend time with us there.

A final meal with Valerie and family at a marvellous steak restaurant at Herne Bay (no not that one) but a fine and elegant part of the city and we

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Blog 25 Monday 12th onwards

Whilst in Nelson we spent some time visiting studios and exhibitions which are spread all round the area. Some fine work to be seen, but all too little time. We also checked out and enjoyed the two sculptures made by Anthony Stones as we thought we should see some of his New Zealand work whilst we are here.

Back then to Picton which had seemed very attractive when we arrived there yesterday and well worth some time there and we stayed in a motel with a balcony and wonderful views. There was time to stroll around the harbour, do some sketching and generally enjoy this small and rather undervalued town.
Tuesday was blustery but the afternoon crossing to Wellington was not too choppy and it is a wonderful trip between the islands out to open sea and then into harbour. Three uninterrupted hours gave me the first proper chance to sketch as we moved from scene to scene and a range of subtle colours.

Rene came to collect us and we returned to the familiar surroundings of their home. When we came last time they had built it onto a hillside and now they are building an extension which will double its size. Lots of work ahead but a great space in the end.
We saw Katie, their daughter, for the first time since our earlier trip when only tiny and she is now a lovely young woman on the verge of her next stage in life and I'm so glad we had the chance to see how now and hope she will come and stay in Oxford before too long.
We went out for a superb fish and chips supper opposite Kapiti beach but it was too blustery to try walking on the shore that evening.

Wednesday 14th - with mixed weather and some heavy rain we decided to take the day easily and catch up with washing and exploring locally. A hair cut brought Richard back from the world of the mad professors ('but I've already had my hair cut this year') and we found yet another wonderful place for a snack lunch. Quality is amazing everywhere. We learned later that Wellington had had such heavy wind that the ferry had been delayed several hours with 6m swells and planes had had problems landing.
Our evening was spent cosily watching the moving Swedish film about creating music 'As it is in Heaven' together.

Thursday 15th - Weather had calmed so we set off for Wellington by train. The Te Papa Museum was built in about 1997 and we decided to see how it compared with the others we have visited over the last few weeks. It is big but somehow rather bittily put together, both architecturally and from the point of view of the exhibits. Its lack of coherence leaves one with a sense of confusion - and I think I most enjoyed a short video which showed the Maori story of New Zealand's creation but with beautiful graphics. We experienced the earthquake house and saw a nostaligic presentation based in a bric a brac shop which gave glimpses of 20th century life. The Maori exhibits were pretty limited, so we will try to learn more in Auckland. They have a new Marai (meeting house) built there which is partly a stage setting for performances is a modern take on the old fashioned Marais (which can also be seen in the Museum) but the multi-coloured wooden figures were a bit disneyfied for our taste. The art collection too is limited but with some really fine works scattered amongst the others.
(traditional Maori marai in Te Papa)

(New variety of Marai in Te Papa - all singing all dancing)
We raced around Wellington to pick up some odds and ends, some from the Jewish Community Centre, and finally walked back along The Terrace - full of fine old houses with verandas but sadly now cramped behind huge skyscrapers which block what would once have been perfect views over the town. Back by train, right up by the driver on main line that actually goes down to one track at one point and skims right down by the sea - a terrific route if you get the chance.

Friday 16th - This time we finally got to the beach - Raumati beach is truly lovely, with splendid views of Kapiti Island, the bird sanctuary, and back towards the coast towards Wellington. The vast amount of driftwood and shells spilled all over it was another fascinating source of natural art. We walked to a small and unspoiled village called Paekakariki, had some perfect Moroccan spicy soup and then found a really good wrought iron sculptor working in his studio there and a great guy producing wood turned art forms from a machine he called the 'Transmogriphier and Cerebral Enhancitron' (Heaven only knows what Richard will be calling the workshop when he gets back).
Esme picked us up from there and we went on to a purpose-built complex for art/ turning/foody shops called Lindale. It is beautifully done and full of wonderful products but there were few people shopping so I'm not sure how it survives before the main season gets going.
Our final meal with Rene and Esme was a very special one, beginning with Sabbath prayers and grace and trying to express how much we had all appreciated our time together. It was sad to think how quickly it had sped past but has left so many precious memories.

On Saturday we left early for the flight to Auckland and on the way had a chance to go up to the hilltop overlooking Kapiti coast to try to fix the view even more firmly in our thoughts.

The flight was good with clear views of this beautiful country on the way and this time we were taken by Brian back home to see Harrison their son as well as catching up with Valerie and Victoria again. We've been offered the use of Victoria's VW Polo whilst in Auckland which makes life infinitely more convenient as we can pop backwards and forwards to their house and that of Valerie's mother, Daphne, who was my mother's best friend as the real reason we have come to Auckland is to see all of them. Meanwhile they have put us up in great comfort at a nearby hotel. Once we had settled our cases back there, rested and refreshed we were raring to join everyone for a great barbecue on their deck and meet good friends of theirs, Tom and Aneke and their children.

Back soon with the next update.

Blog 23 - now Monday 19th Nov but catching up with 11th onwards

Wow, time flies when you are enjoying yourself! We hadn't realised that we had left you so far behind but access to computer with space and time to think straight hasn't been simple over the past few days, though all has been enjoyable in the interim.

On Sunday 10th we all set off from Nelson to visit David Stones, the artist and brother of Anthony Stones, sculptor and our good friend in UK and Beijing. The welcome was immensely warm and perhaps for the first time I could see from the quality of life lived out there that the balance between hub of civilization and real time and space available in this mad world was a fine one. Their place is set on an absolutely beautiful hill with views over water and hills and they have family living comfortably all around them in different houses. Sunshine most of the year and a decent appreciation of the work. Not bad.

We then went on to picnic briefly at Golden Sands Bay - and they are and then headed over towards Picton to see Rene and Esme off on the ferry back to Wellington as they had to get back for work and house building (pile driving at this stage on Monday). The gorgeous scenery is set along winding roads that constantly give new magical glimpses of the coastline or inland lushlylanted hillsides. It was an absolutely beautiful warm and golden day and it was sad to say our temporary farewells. We then drove back to Nelson in the soft evening light listening to music as we went and stayed again with the hospitable b & b we'd been to the night before after yet another example of amazingly good NZ food.

Time racing again and we need to go and see Daphne, my mother's best friend now. I'll get back when I can.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Blog22 Friday 9th November onwards

From Wanaka
we headed up along the stunning (sorry adjectives are definitely a problem in NZ as all the superlatives are understatements here) West Coast. This time it was the glacier experience at Fox Glacier (and the Imax version of the Franz Joseph Glacier to be realistic about timing).

Fish and chips in the fresh air set us up for a zoom through to the gold mining time of Ross as Esme was determined to give us the true West Coast experience of an old two-storey pub, hopefully complete with bar brawl. Hysterics set in as the reality of exactly that became evident. You could have a room with bed + basin or light or mirror but not all three, but as most of the other rooms were empty (wonder why?) we dipped in an out of them for whatever was needed. The communal ladies had a loo but no lock and a shower but not basin and not much in the way of hot water. Having sorted ourselves out briefly we went down to see what was doing in town. The locals are real goldminers and we discovered that even when almost horizontally drunk it was possible for them to sing brilliantly and play the guitar with some style. Rene stole the show with his superlative guitar playing whilst sober and we truly had a great evening there. To top it all once we had retired from the scene at about midnight the party continued in full flood and they even crescendoed to the bar brawl with thumpings, crashings and swearings going on below as we grinned ecstatically above.

Breakfast next day was served in the sunshine on our personal verandah
upstairs overlooking the new lake (filled in gold mine) and we had the pleasure of whitebait fritters a rare and valuable treat given out very sparingly on the back of Rene's playing and Esme's singing I think.

OK onwards via another goldmining town where we picked up an Emmylou Harris CD to play whilst we skimmed through the mountains and then via the Pancake Rock formation
and a walk along the cliff top there and on to Nelson, a fine seaside town which is famed for its artists and craftsmen living the area. This time we went to the other extreme and stayed in a sumptuously comfortable b&b with a super helpful host and hostess and were soon able to cope with the paraphernalia of luxury living (washbasin, mirror and light all ensuite) and found a great seafood restaurant for our first 'dressed up' dinner with R and E.

More to follow but I must go now to see what action is out there for today for us.