Singapore & Bali

Singapore is wild – New York City on steroids with an LA lifestyle! The culture epitomizes the mantra “rules count”.  I saw a warning in a restaurant that there is a $150 fine for not flushing a public toilet. One of our cab drivers charges $15 to take any cigarette butt from his customers before they board less they drop it on the ground and must pay a $150 fine. Residents explained that with strong rules and consistent enforcement with strong penalties there is no crime. While NYC may employ a load of street sweepers, Singapore employs a solid cadre of undercover police and discretely positioned cameras to monitor cleanliness and good behavior. A benevolent big brother watches over the good people of Singapore.

 

Citizens also believe that anyone  qualified to do a job should earn a living wage – and be able to enjoy living in the city. They believe that by providing high wages there is little incentive to cheat one’s employers and no motivation not to work as there are no economic supports beyond one’s family. I think international banking and finance are the big employers as well as high-end retail and hospitality. According to the newspaper, a starting salary for a college grad entering the banking system is $120,000 per year.

One day we walk-toured Singapore.  Singapore is probably the most expensive city on earth with more millionaires per square foot than Silicon Valley had before the dot com bust.  It is vibrant, clean, green, with comprehensive city planning and a cohesiveness of urban design. Singapore is rooted in the present with one foot touching tomorrow.

 

The architecture of hotels and business stretches to the future and blends with the tropical climate and global position of an island in a very large sea. It’s citizens work hard to enjoy the fruits of their labor and believe the robust economy is the direct result of their innovation. That and being the center of eastern banking probably helps. They can afford to dream and take pleasure in their waking hours – more of sense of champagne pockets rather than beer tastes. A 12 oz. bottle of Tiger, the local beer, was $17 everywhere. At 7 11, the top convenience stores in the city, a six-pack costs $47. Noting the economy of scale associated with cold beer, I gave a silent prayer of thanks for former first lady Betty Ford (RIP) who established the concept high-end rehab centers rather than making the price of alcohol so high that only Carrie Bradshaw and her friends could afford to imbibe.

Our Singapore hotel was clean and comfortable – much more business centered than recreational in design and functionality. Breakfast was excellent and the service was outstanding. Staff remembered guests by name every morning. The room was large and comfortable with ample pillows and a sanitized down comforter/duvet. It is not at all like Italy where a room was about a foot larger than the bed – or typical of the size of a cruise ship room.

For most of the events we attended it was a $5.20 cab ride one way and $10.50 the other as rates change mid day and the one way street design doubles the time/cost it takes to go east. Without advance planning there really isn’t much to see aside from the architecture etc. I highly recommend the Singapore Museum and the Buddhist Temple in Chinatown. Of course little India as well just to see the bangle bracelets, famers market, flower stalls, and Indian dress ware. Elsewhere shopping was extraordinary – much more upscale than 5th Ave NYC and more selection than Rodeo Drive.

We saw the Chinese Terra Cotta soldiers exhibit at the Asian Museum of Civilization. It is extraordinary. Every soldier has a unique facial shape and expression. I’ve read that the army of a thousand soldiers, horses and armory are all unique individuals.  One can hardly imagine what they were like when commissioned thousands of years ago with full color details. One of our wedding events was at the museum as well – it was quite the extravaganza with guests performing Indian dances and skits. The view of the city from our outdoor balcony was breathtaking. The way food is presented accentuates the art of dining and the joy of good food.

Singapore is run as a corporation – as explained to me at the wedding. This means expecting a return on investments, keeping the flow of goods profitable and making sure there is a healthy balance sheet. Properties are well maintained. There are Chinese tailors making suits a block from the mall selling Hermes ties and Thomas Pink shirts. You can buy sex in well appointed “naughty shops” rather than cruise a sleaze street for a hooker. The penalty for selling drugs is a slow but certain death.

We had one event at Raffles, the absolute high standard of the old colony days prior to independence 46 years ago. It is more British than the East India Tea Company. I passed on ordering a Singapore Sling – knowing there was a long evening ahead and attending an event sideways is not socially acceptable for those of us cruising out of middle age. We also enjoyed a reserved area at the Sands Hotel Rooftop Night Club. The hotel has an upper structure designed to look like a cruise ship atop two towers. The deck sports an infinity pool that gives an illusion of swimming right into space. This is a five-star venue with a red carpet entry way jammed with Manolo heeled guests having abundant fun.  I had a single beer while the young crowd in our group ordered bottles of vodka and scotch sent to their private tables- wow – the recession has not yet hit the Far East. This was as close to Sex and the City as it gets. Another event was at the Tanglin Club – under-stated elegance at it’s finest. One can imagine the early English colonists gathering here to exchange views about an Empire upon which the sun never set.

The wedding we attended had special events for three nights – one more elegant than the next. The theme was consistent; happiness, harmony, and growth for each of the life time partners and their marriage. The ceremony was Hindu traditional – with many customs that were as entertaining as they were spiritually and emotionally moving. The family is Indian and they chose to honor family traditions. Their wardrobes were a cacophony of design, color and texture. Dario, the groom was clad in a golden turban and traditional garb, his well trimmed beard completed the look of a sultan of soul and the pompituous of love. The bride and groom looked right out of a fairy tale with her luxurious, silken ruby gown and his golden t urban and soft supple shoes.

 

During the Saturday evening reception and celebration at the Tangling Club some of the couple’s closest friends presented a “dollywood” sort of movie production to document Ankia and Dario’s journey of love which began when they were high school sweethearts. We were amazed at the high level of cinema quality. This was no 8mm cam-corder production or cheap You Tube on the fly amateur flick. We were set upfor a “home movie” with friends acting and a montage of family photos. Not so, the video was witty with sophisticated photography, clever animation, real script, and “costumes”.  No wonder! One of the guests who produced the movie was also on the film crew of Eat Pray Love.

The wedding and reception were at the Shangri La. Truly over the top in glamour (close family friends own Prada and are the top designers), distinguished guests (the chief engineer of the Alaskan pipeline) and dear family from all over the world. It was an international gathering with strong familial roots and utmost care  and hospitality for all of the guests. The wedding couple was beautiful, regal, elegant, sophisticated and infinitely gracious to their guests. It was a scene out of Aladdin, as I’m not sure beyond the tale of a young boy with silk trousers being chased by tigers and later eating pancakes that I know a similar story for India.

Bali. Don’t tell George (he really put his heart and soul into planning the perfect 40th anniversary honeymoon – and it was perfect) but Bali was quite the let down from my reading about the island in Eat Pray Love. It is far, far from the sensual, serene love Mecca Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about. It’s a very noisy, crowded hyperactive country! The currency best represents the conundrum of Bali. Where in Singapore a beer was $17 (the exchange between Singapore dollars and US is pretty close) in Bali a 12 oz. Bingtang beer is $30,000 rupees. This translates to $3.50 USD.  One is expected to barter for most items purchased with cash – rps. Only those really good computing with the table of 8’s (ratio USD – Rp = 1:8.25). By the time a confused tourist translates $345,000 rp to US dollars budgeted for souvenirs the sly vendor has convinced her of such a good deal that later math just confirms Jimmy Buffet’s maxim, “Math Sucks.”

The dichotomy of Hindu spirituality is evident everywhere – a constant battle between earthly desires and heavenly respite, wealth and poverty, serenity and competition.  Hindus believe that at once we all have good and evil with our souls – it is through meditation, mindful prayer, and good actions that good overcomes evil. This is a daily challenge that needs much assistance from the Gods. The the typical Hindu makes many daily sacrifices and offerings to receive blessings. For example, cock fighting is illegal except during celebrations in temples as a blood offering is needed. So during a celebration there is much betting and cockfighting – but part of the winnings are shared as gifts to the gods. Those without a loose cock or two can appease the gods with artfully designed flower arrangements on palm leaves with a stick of incense and a sweet treat. Stray dogs and local birds must be deities and they often helped themselves to the humble tributes set on the lawns, beaches, shop fronts,  sidewalks, and curbs.

Our resort-hotel was lovely – though we had no hot water in our bungalow all week – the hotel is expanding and the construction was blamed. Sigh, we tried one bath in the enormous rock tub but it was too chilly to even make bubbles. Yet the beautiful appointments of the room were so wonderful we just chalked it up to ” perhaps taking a cool shower in the elegant outside facility is better choice when in the topics.” There were flowers, incense and an outdoors gazebos with cozy and comfortable twin mats, candles, pillows and privacy. There were sculptures of gods and bas-reliefs in concrete depicting parts of the Hindu episodes. The privacy, elegance and simplicity created a harmonious atmosphere and most romantic setting to celebrate our anniversary. The experience was literally a world away from our honeymoon forty years ago.

Speaking of times past. My God, whatever Bali was when Rogers and Hammerstein wrote “South Pacific” it is no more. You think it might still be the land of love when sitting quietly within the confines of the wall surrounding the hotel. Here you’ll find the gardens, statuary, pleasant sitting areas, pool (whew – it’s too cold for anyone older than six as the water comes down off the mountains and is really nippy this time of year) are stark contrast to the dirty, crowded city streets. The beach at night directly in front of the hotel, with its soft lighted umbrellas and open-air bar and restaurant was more in tune to the visions of Bali.

The beach “strip” we were on is over built – perhaps 25 restaurants with hardly any patrons, at most a restaurant had 2 – 8 tables with diners. Many were empty all evening – just wait-staff standing idle and the maitre de inviting one to dine. The restaurants ran the gamut from raunchy to really nice with a variety of menu opportunities. Apparently the Europeans prefer the 9th street marketplace and eat on the cheap – or so a vendor mused. We were also told on many occasions that hardly any Americans ever come there. We explained the travel logistics. All of the service providers were kind, pleasing, and respectful in a delightful way. I was amazed at their English-speaking skills. Also, there seems to be a strong rotation of new young staff. Our guide said this was part of the training for many young people as well as summer jobs. The hospitality industry is doing quite well (hotel sold out by the weekend).

The beach also has its expected share of hawkers- from bananas to massages. It was nothing it all like I’d imagined – isolated, quiet, non-commercialized. This was an oriental Jersey Shore.  A hotel claims every inch of beach – oddly people don’t take long beach walks. Perhaps it’s the “too much sun” near the equator – most foot traffic is along the sidewalk, under the deep shade of flowering foliage, in front of the restaurants – but the view of the water is very limited.

There are many nail manicurists ($100,000 rp) with no clean utensils. A lovely manicurist approached me everyday on the beach for a pedicure. I promised one for my last day. She reminded me every day. So when I finally sat down with her an hour before our departure, we had a very friendly rapport going. She explained the crowds and empty restaurant tables – “too much competition”. I don’t know how she survives – my pedicure, $100,00 rp was her only booking of the entire day. I imagine after she paid for her space that day (a bucket for her to sit on and a plastic beach chair for the customer) she didn’t have much left. The men hustled sports boat rentals – jet skis (ugh), the glass bottoms and the sailing boat.  We sailed one day and only saw one other boat rented all week. Perhaps it was because they could only go out in the morning when the tide was up.

The beach was touristy – ours not as congested as either adjacent property. There was a pleasant sea breeze, and at high tide the pounding of the surf out on the reef was soothing. In many ways it was similar to being on the Florida Gulf coast – many Europeans, ample restaurants and only one boulevard for traffic. Here the traffic was by foot and bicycles.

On Thursday many many families from the Netherlands and Australia arrived and the atmosphere changed immediately.  Our quite hotel became quite the raucous family haven. Large families dining together, kids bouncing in and around the pool, strollers and nannies were everywhere.

One can only swim in Senur at high tide – as the tide goes out is a bottom-dry lagoon. Many dogs run wild on the beach and through out the lagoon at low tide. Then again, dogs are everywhere and why they aren’t seen dead as an armadillo roadside is beyond our understanding of traffic.  The lagoon is walk able all the way out to the reef. Not a particularly nice thing to do – but George had the proper sea sandals and gave it a whirl. While snorkeling is advertised the reef is dead and we never saw a fish while sailing. I think it’s advisable to recommend this particular venue as a 2 night max and then press on to another part of the island. Our guide recommended the north and northeast as more quiet. He said Kutet was very popular with the surfers yet is much, much more crowded and busy than Senur. Once you do the full day tour it would be better to stay in another part of the island and do a different regional tour.

The road from Senur, our “home base” all the way up to the north central region of the famed Volcano and Crater Lake is bumper-to-bumper traffic. The two lanes are jammed with thousands of scooters and dozens of dogs dodging in and out of traffic, up through Ubet and everywhere we went. It is a volatile contrast to the sculptured Zen design of the rice patties and serene countryside. Getting in and out of the scenic vistas was crazy wild driving! Never advise anyone to rent a car in Bali! Balinese roads make the route from Naples to Positano feel like a four lane straight shot across Nevada.

The tour guide was outstanding, and you were correct in advising taking two days to tour. Otherwise it’s just another day at the beach – which is beautiful, but not nearly as nice as Narragansett Beach. After traveling around the world one must get out and explore the culture and geography. One thing I noted from our cab ride through Senur was the river that runs through the city. At the time of my observation it was low tide – very, very low water. The river was a wide ditch composed of sandbars, puddles – and about 10 million non-recyclable plastic bags. The riverbed was blanketed solid from shore to shore with more trash than it would take to pave the Mass Pike. Our guide nodded, “It’s a problem”. Hopefully, if I ever use one of those bags again I’ll have that haunting memory.

Looking at what runs through the river into the bay Bali is the antithesis of Singaporean urban planning. It’s an environmental disaster. The coastal seawater must be sorely polluted beyond our imagination. Higher up in the mountains the river runs adjacent to the road. We saw families doing laundry in it – later, upstream, a young boy was squatting astride the ditch taking a public dump, nearby dogs ignored his production while they were slurping up the water. Many spots along the stream were queued up with construction workers who were siphoning off water to make mortar near piles of thick, black volcanic sand. Our guide said Bali’s rivers are vital water sources for the rice fields and the people. I gave a quick thanks for George’s insistence that we had typhoid and hepatitis shots and for bottled water.

Somehow, we missed the monkey temple and I wasn’t sure whether riding an elephant is eco abuse so we passed on that. Wylan the tour guide told us to ask him to stop anywhere and he’d be delighted to guide our excursion. We invited him to choose some of his favorite spots. The working garden (coffee, cinnamon, vanilla, pineapples, saffron) with the luak coffee was really neat. The silver company was fascinating because we saw the process from raw silver nuggets to exquisite jewelry. The factory process from artist to artist working in 19th century conditions with minimal tools and no OSHA with acetolyne torches in hand is daunting. The art galleries were impressive and very expensive. The Barong Dance was quite fun. It’s a colorful classical tale of good vs. evil with a good monkey a bad bull and huge but good god all with grand costumes.  Seeing the play made all of the black and white checkered adornments on statues make much more sense.

This was a journey of epic proportions that enhanced my appreciation for Indonesia and Malaysia. We were fortunate to share it with Amberley, Nick and so many friends from Loyola, as well as Amberley’s dearest friend Kerry who we’ve known since kindergarten! It was an honor to be a guest at Anika and Dario’s wedding. I will long remember their family’s gracious hospitality and their devout love. What a wonderful way to celebrate my 60th circle round the sun and 40 years with a gold band on the left hand.

One thought on “Singapore & Bali

  1. I could see it, smell it, and feel it. The gypsy in me wants to go tomorrow. Bloody Mary would be so disappointed that Bali is no longer the pristine paradise of those who sing ” Younger than spring time are you . . .” Or maybe George did.

    Like

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s