Thursday, March 5, 2015

Mar 3 – Approaching Singapore

We are steadily closing in on Singapore where we will spend the next two days.  In the meanwhile, the regular sea day routine has had some wrinkles added.

We will be losing a number of passengers in Singapore.  Chief among them, for us, is the lady who cheats at Trivia.  Her departure will mean that Trivia will be more fun and that we will have to find a new topic of conversation.  Her antics – including changing scores, changing answers, submitting falsified answer sheets and general bullying of teams which scored her team’s answer sheet – have become the stuff of legends.  Even non-Trivia players talk about her and several Cruise Critic friends come to the Ocean Bar each day just to watch the group dynamic.

Although we met for Trivia today, there was no competition.  With people leaving tomorrow, Cruise Director Gene will be distributing Grand Dollars based on point totals and overall placement since Sydney.  We were not concerned about our placement, but were not-so-secretly hoping we beat the cheat at her own game.  Alas, we were satisfied with our 4th place but were disappointed that She Who Shall Not Be Named came in first, beating us by 8 points over the 9 days of competition.  Several of our teammates continued to complain about the results for the rest of the day.

We re-crossed the equator today and that meant it was time to “kiss the fish.” This ritual is held on the Lido deck in and around the pool. Crew members who have not previously crossed the equator [except earlier on this voyage] are subjected to degradation, slime and humor and, in fact, do have to kiss a large, dead fish.  We have seen this performance several times and opted not to attend.  That decision brought both good and bad news.  The good news was that we stayed out of the equatorial sun; the bad news was that we missed the captain and hotel manager going into the pool, too.

Follow-up:  Waiter Ricky, whose brother was supposed to drive us yesterday, appeared at our dinner table last night full of apologies and insistence that he should pay for our adventure.  We refused again, but he tried to slip the money to MA as he shook her hand.  She gave it right back to him although D did say that the reason was that he had not offered enough.  He took that in good humor and accepted defeat.  At breakfast this morning, he was back to normal and the subject was not discussed nor shall it be except when we recount it to other people.  As Ginger said, we have already gotten a lot of mileage out of the experience.  We found out at Trivia that tablemates of Ken and Lois had gone shopping in the old town and ducked into a restaurant to escape the rain.  Naturally, it was Café Batavia.  It figures.  We couldn’t find it and they tripped over it. 

The MDR was decorated with red lanterns when we went to breakfast this morning.  It is the end of Chinese New Year and dinner was listed in the daily program as “formal optional,” a category we have never seen before.  The explanation was simple: with passengers leaving in the morning, formal dress would have presented a problem because they had to pack tonight.  The remaining passengers were encouraged to wear formal attire or Chinese clothing; we opted for basic black.  The menu was anything but Chinese and featured the cruise ship special of escargot and surf-and-turf.

The after-dinner show was an a cappella group we had seen several days ago.  Their voices were good but they used their bass as a boom box and sang almost no 4-part harmony. 

TOMORROW – Singapore

Feb 4 – One Short Day in the Emerald City

Singapore is a beautiful city.  It is also the capital of one of the most h the most repressive laws and punishments in the civilized world.  There are strict controls on what can and cannot be brought into the country.  Drug crimes carry draconian penalties including death.  Convicted criminals can still be beaten with a cane.  Littering is a major offense.

On the other hand, this city is filled with parks and green space, modern office buildings and shopping malls [at least two of which are at the cruise terminal].  Unemployment is low; the people are friendly and helpful; and the populace seems genuinely happy. 

We decided to revisit some favorite places and check out some new ones.  It seems that every other time we have come to Singapore, one of us has been sick and we have had to abandon our plans, but we were luckier this time.  Our itinerary called for a visit to the Singapore Botanical Garden and its Orchid Garden and lunch at Halia, a restaurant outside the Orchid Garden and the Ginger Garden.  Previously, we have taken a taxi to the Garden, but today we tried the MRT, the Singapore subway.

Just getting to the subway involved a long, long walk through the terminal, past immigration and passport control, through a shopping center and then down a series of escalators.  We wandered around a bit trying to figure out where we were going and which train to take.  Although we could have opted for a one- or two-day transit pass, we chose to pay as we went.  We had to walk quite a distance to get to the proper track after we had bought tickets at the automated vendors, a precursor to the walking we were going to do the rest of the day.

There is a direct train from the Harbourfront station to the Botanical Gardens which meant that we did not have to change trains.  We left the MRT at the appropriate stop and realized that we were right at an entrance.  This was not the one we had used on a previous trip, so nothing looked familiar.  The signpost which pointed to various areas of the park sent us in the right direction with the added information that we were 1.6km from the Orchid Garden.  In other words, we were a mile from our destination.  The walk was not bad.  Compared to our other experiences in Singapore, it was not too hot or too humid.  Nonetheless, it was still hot and humid.

We made only one wrong turn at a fork which was not marked.  We did not mind the loss of time [minimal], but the path we had not taken was the one which went up hill.  There was no way to avoid it and we were able to see civilization in the form of a café from the top of the hill.  This was just what we needed – iced cappuccinos, air conditioning and bathrooms.  Our rest stop completed, we proceeded to walk the last 300 meters to the Orchid Garden.

By this time, it was a bit past noon, so we chose to eat lunch before seeing the Orchids.  Just outside the Orchid Garden and the Ginger Garden is Halia, a restaurant where we had eaten in 2008, our last visit to Singapore.  At that time, almost every item on the menu utilized ginger in some way.  The menu has changed and there are fewer gingered items available, but we still had a delightful lunch.  MA had a selection of cheese pillows, fried dumplings with lemon cheese, tomato cheese and gorgonzola.  D had an assortment of sausages accompanied by ginger-berry chutney and an eggplant dip.  An order of truffle fries was shared.  And MA had a ginger-infused iced tea.  While we ate, we saw the ship’s captain wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, definitely out of uniform.

After paying a $1SIN entry fee, we walked through the orchids.  It seemed hotter and more humid and we made quite a few stops along the way to cool off and catch our breath.  The flowers were as lovely as we remembered and we were glad we had come despite the long walk.

When we had seen and photographed as many orchids we could, we went back to the little plaza where we had had the cappuccinos earlier.  There was no way we were walking back across the park to catch the MRT.  Instead, we went out of the complex and took our place in the taxi queue.  We realized as we did this that we had come in this entrance last time.

We weren’t dead yet, so we had the cabbie take us to Arab Street.  One of several ethnic neighborhoods in Singapore, it is a hotbed of cafes serving all types of food from the Arabian Peninsula and textile shops.  There were a few places where ready-to-wear clothing was available, but most of the shops were selling fabric from bolts on display on the sidewalk and in the stores.  It was a dazzling array of colors, patterns and materials but not of much interest to us.

We did not spend too much time in the Arab Street area, just long enough to walk two streets and see the exterior of a golden-domed mosque which was being renovated.  We got directions to the closest MRT station which was farther away than we had thought [hoped?] and dragged ourselves another half-mile or so to the station.

It was just like the station at Harbourfront – large and long.  We spent a lot of time getting from the entrance to the “nerve center” where the ticket machines, maps and stores were.  We bought tickets and then asked one of the customer service employees about the transfer we had to take.  He suggested a different station than we had planned and it saved us a lot of time.  Of course, we still had a lot of walking ahead of us in the various stations and throngs of people going the other way which made us feel like salmon swimming upstream.

We made the transfer with a minimum of fuss, just more walking and escalators.  Once back to the Harbourfront station, we got a bit lost and did not exit anywhere near where we had entered this morning.  The difficulty arose because we were on the Orange Line in the morning but the Purple Line in the afternoon.  They are on different underground levels.  Had we followed the signs to the Orange Line, we would have saved time and more walking.  Instead, we found ourselves in a large – really large – upscale mall.  We had to go outside, cross the street and enter the shopping area in the terminal building.  Eventually, we returned to our cabin, home for the past 2 months.

Singapore represents “the hump” of the trip; it will all be downhill from here because we have passed the half-way point and are heading home.  While we were in Indonesia, there was a twelve-hour time difference with the US east coast, but now it is a thirteen-hour difference.  Soon, the hours will melt away until we are back in Florida.

We went to Pub Trivia, of course, and then back to the cabin to shower off the Singapore humidity.  We had decided months ago that we would eat dinner at Clarke Quay on the Singapore River.  Our DIL introduced it to us before our first visit and we have gone there on each return.  After changing clothes, we headed back through the terminal to the taxi stand.  Although there is a Clark Quay stop on the MRT, we think it is a few blocks from CQ itself and we did not want to face more walking tonight.  By comparison, the thirty-minute wait in the queue for a taxi was a walk in the park.

When you are in a strange city, especially at night, you are at the mercy of the cabbies.  In Singapore, however, there is nothing to worry about.  The drivers are scrupulously honest and do not take the roundabout route to the destination.  All cabs have meters, rates are uniform and tipping is not permitted.  Our ride to dinner took us through areas we did not recognize but which showed us some of the “real” Singapore rather than just the soaring skyscrapers.

We drove through Chinatown, a neighborhood we have yet to visit [we were too tired today].  The roadway was divided and at one point we passed a half-mile [maybe] celebration of the Year of the Goat.  This is the end of Chinese New Year, and the area was ablaze.  The median was filled with translucent goats which were lit from inside.  Over the street we could see strings of red lanterns.  Our only regret was that we had not brought a camera or our phone to capture the experience.

We wandered through Clarke Quay briefly while looking for the Spanish restaurant where we had eaten twice before.  The menu had changed and our favorite appetizer was no longer available, but we ordered well and enjoyed watching tour boats float past our riverside table.  Just for Jon, we split an order of olives and one of fried Emmenthaler cheese.  We also shared “carne” paella which was loaded with chicken, beef and chorizo sausage.  Yummmmm!  To accompany this feast, we each had a glass of red Sangria.

The taxi ride back seemed quicker and we navigated the shopping concourse well-enough to return home a few minutes before 10 just as many of our stewards were in the terminal using the free wi-fi to call their families. 

TOMORROW –One half day in the Emerald City

Actually, the half-day in Singapore was spent on the ship.  We stayed in the cabin until 10:15 and almost missed breakfast in the Lido.  With three more port days in the next three days, resting and saving our energy was more important than walking through the terminal again.  Some day we may get to Chinatown, but not this trip.

So….it became a sea day, of sorts.  Rest, read, crossword puzzle, trivia.  D did go over to the terminal shopping center to spend the remaining Singapore dollars.  Exchanging them would only incur an even less favorable rate than what he bought them for.  Our 25 dollars bought 24 cans of Coke Zero and a container of pretzels.  The chump change that was left over will go into the grandsons’ collection with the loose change from everywhere else.

Tonight was being celebrated as Purim, the holiday inspired by the Book of Esther.  It is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar but one of the few which is happy.  Oft quoted is the Jewish philosophy, “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.”  And on Purim, “Let’s drink.”  Arthur’s Purim service was a day late but no one would have come yesterday when we had all night in Singapore. He invited not only the congregants who come to Friday night services but also anyone else he has talked to. The affair was not so much a service as a story-telling during which he read an abridged version of the story of Esther, her brother Mordecai and the evil Haman.  Following the custom, everyone use noise makers [salvaged from the Super Bowl party] whenever Haman’s name was mentioned.  Raucous only begins to describe it. After the reading, attendees were invited to partake of hamantashen [a Purim cookie named after Haman’s three-cornered hat] and wine.  Then we marched around Deck 5 in costume making fools of ourselves.  MA wore Emily’s Cookie Monster costume and D wore a jester’s hat, matching bow tie and a vest he “borrowed” from the dining room staff.

After the parade, we returned to the room to make a quick change for dinner where D returned the vest.  It may have been marked XL but Indonesian XL is neither extra nor large.

There was a pianist who performed a variety of classical and popular pieces in the theater after dinner.  Some of the selections were from a television score he wrote in China, his native country.  Others were from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Chopin and Italian opera composers.  The house band was present but not obnoxious for a change.

And so to bed for an early departure tomorrow.

TOMORROW – Kuala Lumpur



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