Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kusu Island and the Cheng Ho Dragon Boat

[Sunday April-19]--  Today we decided to see something outside of Singapore, albeit not far outside.  We signed up for an afternoon "cruise" on the Cheng Ho dragon boat, a boat providing a tour of the harbor area of south Singapore, and a brief visit on the Singapore island of Kusu.    This is a 2 1/2 hour tour--  and fortunately Cheng Ho is not Mandarin for "S.S. Minnow", nor Kusu for "Gilligan".  (A vague reference for you boomers familiar with the TV show Gilligan's Island).  The cruise also optionally includes an English tea.
There are a number of islands that are part of the Republic of Singapore, however none are very large.  Three islands that are regularly accessible by ferry are Kusu, St John, and Palau Ubin.  (Palau is the Malay word for island).  Our original thought was to take a ferry to one of the islands-- Kusu Island, and hang out for the day.  But on Sunday morning the weather forecast indicated a strong chance of thunderstorms and rain later that day.  The smaller ferrys service the islands only three or four times a day, and this could be a long time to wait out a storm.
Thunderstorms here are (apparently) frequent, and certainly capture your attention as they pass through.  In comparison with the T storms of Idaho and California, there are no mountains to speak of, so the clouds hang low.   This provides for a really close encounter with the thunder and lightening.  For some of the storms passing through, it looks and sounds as if the lightening is occurring directly outside the apartment, and perhaps it is.  When the rain comes, it comes down in huge volumes for several minutes.  If you are outside when a storm passes through, count on getting wet.  The storms don't last long--  a few minutes to sometimes an hour, but during their presence they are loud, wet, and menacing,  scaring small children, dogs, and a few adults.  I prefer to be inside at these times.
So erring on the side of caution, we changed our plan to take a harbor cruise on the Cheng Ho Dragon Boat tour.  This was a nice alternative way to spend the day-- it is on the water, includes the English Tea  (a euphemism for dainty sandwiches with no bread crusts and sweet desserts.  Tea and coffee happen to be available too.), and provided shelter should the rain arrive as predicted.   Perhaps most appealing to me, the boat is air conditioned!
A bonus of the tour is that the Cheng Ho stops and disembarks passengers on Kusu island for a 30 minute stop.  When reading the tour brochure I thought this would be ridiculously brief period of time.  However after arriving at Kusu Island, I found 30 minutes more than adequate, and in fact we probably had 5 or 10 minutes surplus.  Kusu turns out to be little more than a large reef, with a small rise at one end, and otherwise flat.  If storm surges were prevalent in the region, it would frequently be covered in water.  The island was once only about 1/7 of its current size of 8.5 hectares-- previously only two rock outcroppings, but enlarged in 1975 to become a small day park.  Kusu means "Tortoise island" in Chinese, and the Malay name for the island is Pulau Tembaku.
We walked its circumference in 20 minutes, including mounting the 135 steps leading to the temple at the top of the (only) rise on the island.  The island is a national park, and has a number of small beaches, and picnic tables, some with small cabana shelters.  There are also a Malay shrine (Dato Sayed Abdul Rahmen-- a holy man saved on the island by the supernatural arrival of a boat with food and water) and a Chinese temple (Homage for Da Bogong, or "The Merchant God") on the island.  In October upwards of 60,000 pilgrims converge on the island for the annual Kusu Festival, a religious event where the devotees pray for good health, peace, happiness, good luck and prosperity.  I imagined the island with 60,000 people on it and decided that this is one event we will never attend.  The event in this venue would provide a wonderful example of describing a captured audience.
I also imagined if we had come to visit Kusu by the smaller day ferry, as in our original plan.  My ignorance and greater expectations for the island might have brought on some anxiety as we would watch the ferry motor away without us.  However now calibrated on its attributes, another visit to Kusu is possible in our future, where we bring a picnic lunch and spend a leisurely afternoon on one of the small beaches, a brief pause from the concrete and crowded bustle of Singapore.
Cheng Ho dragon boat

A view of the stern...

The Sands Resort casino/hotel, under construction.

Skyline of downtown Singapore.  The Singapore Flyer (ferris wheel) is on the right, next to the Sands Resort Hotel & Casino

Approaching Kusu Island.  There are actually two islands in this photo-- there is a water passage to the right of the red buoy (barely visible on the right) that separates the islands.

Approching the dock at Kusu.  Note the large freighter ship passing behind Kusu in the distance.  This rather awkward looking ship is designed for shipping automobiles.

 The Chinese temple on Kusu Island.  The temple has an approach that crosses a pond, currently drained for maintenance on the pier.

 The Malay shrine.  The shrine is located at the top of a rise of the island, that requires ascending some 135 or more steps.

The Malay shrine.  The rocks are painted, and leaving graffitti appears to be part of the practice.

Also along the path and stairs leading to the Malay shrine are many small plastic bags tied to the tree branches.  These appear to contain small paper scrolls, incense, and other token offerings.  The religious practices and their significance are completely lost in my ignorance of the religions, for both of these religious sites.

One of the small beaches, with swimmers, on Kulu.  The coast of Sumatra(?) is visible in the distance.  The beaches are of course artificial, as the entire island was constructed by fill behind protection breakwaters.

 The island is "Tortoise Island" and these are the resident tortoises, in an enclosed pond.

Elaine at the Kusu ("Tortoise Island")  tortoise monument.  You can see the Cheng Ho moored at the dock and the Chinese temple in the background.

Passing pleasure boats beyond the Kusu breakwater, with the Singapore skyline in the distance.

 Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world, and there are hundreds of ships in the area.  A container freighter passes by Kusu.

There are countless ships anchored in the straights off of the Singapore harbor, including a sister ship of the Cheng Ho dragon boat.

There are also many water taxis operating in the region.  This is the Marina South Ferry terminal, where the Cheng Ho operates, as well as many of these taxis.  This is a small terminal, although because of its close proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia, and the foreign ships arriving, it has a immigration check point.  The water taxis apparently bring merchant sailors to and from the anchored freighters and ships.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jewelled Arts of India

[Sunday April 11]--  On Sunday last Elaine and I visited the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) of Singapore.  A special exhibit was on display of jeweled artwork from the Mughal period of India (1526 to 1857).  The Islamic Mughal Empire first ruled northern India, and in its middle period, expanded to include southern India, although this region was rarely a stable member of the empire.  The British effectively put an end to the empire when they imprisoned the ruling Shah in 1857 after a series of uprisings threatened the stability of their trade.
As we learned from the exhibit, the Mughars were strong patrons of the arts (except for the third emperor, Shah Jahan, who was largely responsible for the decline of the empire).  This period brought a strong Persian influence on literary, architectural, and artisan culture to India.  The exhibit included amazing jeweled artifacts and jewelry, using mounting and gold work unique to this region.
A large number of the exhibit artifacts were daggers or swords--  perhaps a good indication of the state of affairs and life in the Mughar Empire at this time.

Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

Jeweled daggar from the Mughar period, Damascus steel

Jewelled sword hilts and sceptar

A gold embellished cup.  Although this vessel appears to be glass, it is actually carved from a solid piece of quartz.

Siimilarly, the grip from a sword, carved from quartz.

Jewelled bowls and containers.  Again, made from carved quartz.

A large carved emerald, inlaid with gold and embedded topaz.  Emeralds are not found in India--  this was likely from South America, brought to Indian artisans by trade with the Portugese.

A bowl, carved from jade

A jeweled carp

Raffles Hotel-- The Long Bar

Raffles Hotel
[Saturday, April 10--]  We've been in Singapore (off and on) now for nearly five months and it was time to visit the Raffles Hotel. This 19th century hotel is a fixture of Singapore, and one of its treasured landmarks. Our event for the day was attending a matinee performance of The Tempest at the Esplinade, and we thought we would follow up with a visit to the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel for a drink.  The Long Bar is the site of the creation of the Singapore Sling cocktail in 1915, and is on the check-list of every tourist that comes to visit Singapore.  The hotel counts on it.
The performance at the Esplinade was-- interesting.  It was long (2 1/2 hours, no intermission) and the set was creative (a water feature on the stage).  However, we had trouble hearing some of the actors (how well does anyone hear Elizabethean English in a Shakespeare play?), and although we enjoyed it, it was not the most memorable version or performance of The Tempest we have attended. Seeing the play allowed us to see inside the inside of the Esplinade theatre, all for a staggering ticket price which I won't divulge.
Back to the Long Bar.  I had previously read up on the recipe for a Singapore Sling, and had decided at that time that it was not a drink for me. However, Elaine was far more game than I, and she ordered one of these pink colored drinks. Although the current recipe has deviated from its original concoction, a Singapore Sling is made from gin, cherry heering, benedictine, pineapple juice, and sometimes some club soda. For S$30, it comes in a tall glass with the hotel name on it (available for sale separately for S$13) and fruit hanging off of it, but alas, no little umbrella.  I ordered a glass of an Australian Cabernet Savignon (S$25) from the menu, which turned out to be unremarkable, and I would have been better off with a Sling, fulfilling my own check item on the tourist list. As it turns out Elaine did not find the Sling appealing either-- too sweet.

The entrance to Raffles Hotel

The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel.  The bar serves bowls of peanuts, and of course promotes a peanut shell-on-the-floor atmosphere.  There are cocktail servers everywhere, ready to bring you that Singapore Sling.

Not exactly modern air conditioning...  The Long Bar has a curious cooling system--  fans that pivot and are driven by a rod running the length of the ceiling that connects a number of the fans, waving them to and fro. Those clever British!!   Note also the circular stairway.

Elaine about to taste her first (possilby last) Singapore Sling

Here is the famous coctail, a Singapore Sling.  Complete in an official Raffles Hotel Long Bar glass.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


[ March/April 2010-- ]  In late March Elaine and I traveled to the United States.  Elaine attended a week of business meetings in Boise, Idaho while I traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit family.  Our second week was spent in Huntington Beach, California attending a memorial service for Ron, Elaine's step-father.

San Francisco
Well, full disclosure--  I visited my sister and her family, who live in Benicia, not San Francisco.  It was a good visit, as we last got together this past summer.  While here I was able to attend to a number of errands, such as visiting a dentist (bad news-- fillings needed to be replaced), and refilling pharmaceutical prescriptions.  Dental and medical services are very modern and available in Singapore, however this was a matter of convenience (the prescription-- some specific medications are not (yet) available in Singapore) and comfort zone (a U.S. dentist speaking English, not Singlish).  A couple of good meals out at Bay Area restaurants, not to mention at my sister's home, too.
The green flowered fields of Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.  This is a wonderful time of year for California.  In later months the spring winds will change the fields from their winter green to the summer gold.

While I was there we made a visit to the newly rebuilt California Academy of Sciences building, housing the Steinhart Aquarium and Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.  It was spectacular, albeit an expensive ticket ($25 for adults) for the experience.  I have great memories from my childhood visiting the two centers, but they had both become a little shabby and outdated, with their age.  (Something we all experience, unfortunately).  It is satisfying to see that San Francisco has recognized the importance of this center, and has made an investment into restoring it to new glory.

The DeYoung museum, viewed from the entry of the California Academy of Science. The DeYoung was rebuilt several years ago, and now the CAS has also been renovated.

The building is unique--  it has a "green" roof (see below), and is proported to be of an environmentally friendly design.  The aquarium has new tanks that no longer leak, as the older ones did.  There is an excellent Northern California coast tank, complete with wave action that is really stunning.   It is amazing to see what colorful fish and ocean life live just offshore.  The tropics don't have exclusive claim to beautiful fish.

The green roof at the new California Academy of Science building in Golden Gate Park.

Gary and Lois at the C.A.S. "green roof"

The new California Academy of Science building encorporates photovoltaic cell panels into its architecture and design, augmenting the power source  for the building.
A new exhibit is a four storey tropical forest, complete with living tropical plants and animals.  butterflies fly aloft the indoor tree canopy, and there are many live examples of the forest inhabitants (in containment) on display.  The theme of the exhibit is the crisis of the world-wide loss of this habitat and its place in our ecosphere.

Lois and Gary in at the tropical forest exhibit

The 1950's era planetarium theater has been replaced by a modern technology, digital projection system, with an impressive presentation.  A few things have been postulated and learned about the cosmos since the 1950's, and this has been refreshed in the new show.  I do miss the San Francisco skyline that was a part of the old planetarium theater (removed in the renovation), but that too was well out of date-- San Francisco has a considerable number of new buildings.

One welcome new addition is an underground parking garage, apparently built with some controversy.  Parking has been an issue in this area of the park for decades, with finally some solution.

Huntington Beach
One of the bright spots in the sad event of a memorial service is the gathering of friends and family, who would likely never be able to gather under other circumstances.  Ron's service was attended by friends and family who traveled from locations all over the U.S. (and world, including us) to show their respect for his lifetime.  Ron would have been pleased--  he enjoyed his visits and the connections to family, and had many stories about his times with them.
In attendance were relatives, traveling from Maryland, Idaho, Oregon, New Hampshire, Florida, New Mexico, and Indiana, as well as those living in the greater Los Angeles / Southern California area.  It was quite the gathering, and a large house that we rented provided a place to stay for many of the from-far travelers, as well as the post-memorial reception.  Elaine's son, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and siblings were on hand for a family gathering that has not occurred for a very long time.
The weather was favorable, and allowed a beach picnic, complete with bon fire.  (Not just a good idea--  the weather was favorable but not  completely warm in the evening-- it is still winter/spring).

Jim, Elaine, and Aunt Mary in Pasadena

A warming fire at Huntington Beach

Sunset on Huntington Beach...

... followed  minutes later by (a blurry picture of) the full moon

Elaine's Aunt Dot (right) and cousin Nancy (left) from New Hampshire

Nathan (center) with Elaine's brothers John (left) and Robert (right)

Elaine with dessert, and Uncle Willard from Florida