Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Quirky Singapore

Stormy weather at Changi Sailing Club

Greetings from a murky wet and grey Friday in Singapore. Woke up this morning and Kevin commented that it could be a November day in the UK except it's a few degrees warmer outside than it would be over there and the AC has been on all night in a bid to keep the air cool and dry enough to sleep comfortably.

Like many a Brit settling here before us Singapore has rapidly felt like home. Thinking about why this should be we decided there is a certain familiarity about streets with rows of little shops and the names of long dead British generals, colonialists or politicians. There is even a High Street, the first street established by the original planners though it is now tucked away behind Fort Canning Park and no longer a main thoroughfare. The shops themselves carry many familiar brands and stores like Robinson's, one of several big department stores, would fit right into any UK city. There are many similarities in every walk of life, perhaps not surprising when you realise that next year the Little Red Dot celebrates it's 50th Birthday since independence so is a very new country with long time ties to Britain.

This row of converted shop houses
would look quite at home in Britain despite the orange paint and the shutters

The exotic - a tiny temple

Modern Singapore

Quirky Singapore - racks of fancy dress costumes in a back street
Familiarities and difference aside, we've also noticed quite a few quirky things which make Singapore just a little different from the rest of the world, here are my top five in no particular order:

Sweet & Sour Fish supper
1. The number of eateries...yes that is what they call them not "restaurants" or "cafes". It's a broad term covering everything from posh hotel establishments to familiar chain burger places, from hawker centres to hot chestnut stalls and local restaurants. It seems most of Singapore eats out most of the time; there is always food available whether you fancy a bite to eat after a night at the pub or some breakfast on the way to work. I am sure if you were to wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning hungry there will be somewhere not far away open.  In fact at almost every event or place we've visited there is invariably food on offer and people eating!

2 Hunting for change for parking is not something you ever need to do in Singapore. Every car has an IU on the dashboard and you purchase rechargeable cash card to slot in it. The unit is read by the entry barrier to car park and then on exit it deducts the right amount from your cash card. This is actually the secondary purpose of an IU, it was introduced to pay tolls on entering the ERP zones  (electronic road pricing aka congestion charges) - expressways and the city centre. In practise the tolls don't reduce the number of cars, car taxation does that, meanwhile every off-street carpark has adopted the system even our own apartment block, not that they charge us, the IU simply enables them to identify resident's cars, opening the barriers (the main gate and the car park) automatically to allow access.

Spot the foam "snow" - Gardens by the Bay
3 All the shop assistants here really mean it when they say "Merry Christmas", "Good morning", or as one person wished me recently "Have a really nice day". Most genuinely want to engage their customer in conversation even in the bigger, busier stores so expect to take time over your purchases. The Red Dot is a very friendly place.

4 Almost everyone young or old will be consulting their phone at the bus stop. There are a plethora of routes, frequent services and a choice of excellent phone apps to help you plan your route, inform you when the next 970 bus will arrive and even where to find the nearest bus stop with buses heading in your direction. Boards at the stop too are clear to understand - red labelled bus routes have disabled friendly buses for example - and every bus stop has both a name and a number so is easy to identify. But buses here can also either be late or early despite what your phone says. I know, I have waited 10 mins for a bus the app tells me has ARR (arrived) and missed a bus the app said was four minutes away; bus services here are then just as anywhere else in the world but shhhh don't tell the Singaporeans that!

5 Parking backwards why? Everybody but everybody except for the odd European expat reverses into the parking space - quick getaway perhaps? 

Parking backwards seems to be a national obsession

Spot the odd one out - Valley Park visitors
That's it my top five quirky things in Singapore I'm sure there's lots more and that other expats will almost certainly have a different list!  For now can we wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Fair Winds for 2015.
"Trees" - Gardens by the Bay

Friday, 5 December 2014

Railway Walks

View from Holland Park Road Bridge
It is not often in the midst of a major conurbation that you get the opportunity to escape to the countryside but we've discovered Singapore's equivalent of Richmond Park, London. Rather than a huge medieval deer hunting park this particular rural gem is long and thin; it was once the Malaysia railway line that ran from Woodlands in the north of the island down to the old main station at Tanjong Pajar in the south. Some 17 or 18 kilometres of jungle lined space where, being set mostly in cuttings, traffic noise hardly penetrates.

This rural park has survived the developer mainly it seems because the ownership was disputed for years after the railway was defunct. The Malaysians took away "their" railway track in 2001 leaving just the muddy bed on which it had been laid. In a few areas the neighbours have extended their gardens into the fringes but for the most part it is a single continuous right of way across the island from north to south. All the roads cross on bridges above and below nature has had a free hand. Its name "The Green Corridor" is well deserved.

Landed properties fringe the line
This massive bridge supports a big road junction
Being in a dip and it being monsoon season the walker quickly realises that the drainage is not good. The trail is extremely muddy in parts with quite deep puddles under one or two of the bridges too. Sturdy shoes or wellies rather than flipflops are advised. The trackside trees and shrubs offer little shade from the equatorial sun so its best explored early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Take plenty of water too as there are few convenient stores along the way without climbing up to the road level and making a detour.

Before heading off we printed off the excellent maps provided by the Green Corridor's own website and worked out which bus stop or MRT station to start from. Public transport in Singapore is excellent and together with phone apps like xxxxx and xxxx it is easy to work out the quickest route to almost anywhere on the island. Bus stops have numbers and names and yet another number on the bus shelter which can be a bit confusing at first but you soon work out which bits of info are the most useful in which app. Armed with a topped up ezLink card we set off for the Holland Road Bridge, not far from where we stayed when we first arrived and just a short walk from a bus route which also runs close by our Valley Park apartment.

Presumably this school running track is no longer used!

Innovative engineering! The ironing board bridge

Drainage works at Buona Vista meant a short detour

Holland Road crosses the Green Corridor about the mid way point and once we had scrambled down the embankment (there was an easier way onto the walk from a local street we spied a few minutes later) Kevin & I headed south. This stretch is very popular with walkers, runners and cyclists but within a couple of kilometres we had the path to ourselves. There is plenty to see - the back gardens of the Black and White colonial era houses in the Alexandria area, modern office blocks towering above us around Buona Vista as well as new-to-us trees, plants and birds plus the occasional squirrel. We managed two sections of the maps down as far as Queensway Road which equated to around 4 km in all. It was late morning, the sun was high and the thunder clouds stating to pile up time to call a halt to our exploration. The pair of muddy and thirsty expat walkers suddenly appearing over the crash barrier at the edge of the bridge rather surprised motorists stopped at the Alexander/AYE junction!

Thunder clouds building

You could be anywhere but in the
middle of a densely populated city

Sunday morning volley ball

A few remaining railway sleepers

Mosque seat with cherry blossom!

The end of our walk
A short walk past the Alexandria Hospital brought us to Queensway shopping centre where the golden arches provided two large helpings of cold drinks. Then it was time to find a bus home. Kevin uses the buses hereabouts for his weekday commute as Valley Park is the opposite end of Alexandra Road to his office. Few buses actually go along the entire length of the road, most use short stretches of it and do loops back and forth between it and parallel roads; hence he tried to explain but I didn't grasp that you have to get on a bus apparently heading the wrong way! Eventually we sorted ourselves out by checking the phone apps several times and found a bus from by the hospital that would stop outside of our complex having taken us on a tour of Redhill, an area further along the south-eastern side of the hill upon which we live. Buses are a great way to see Singapore too. 

And we have a lot more of this beautiful strip of Singapore to explore over the coming months.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

A So So Day Out

Aviary waterfall
Having arrived at the island of Singapore, dropped the metaphorical hook and sorted ourselves out, our natural next step is to explore wherever it is this pair of globetrotting sailors have washed up. And preferring to avoid the usual tourist traps, posh hotels, brunches etc we recently decided to visit Jurong Bird Park located deep in the western industrial area of Singapore.

Getting there was an easy trip along the PIE (the Pan Island Expressway). Finding somewhere to park was another matter as the signage got you off the main road but missed the last vital step of an immediate left turn; we found ourselves heading up the hill above the park. Nice views of the Jurong shipyards from below the satellite station! Eventually we realised what looked like a lorry park exit was also the carpark entrance!

The park itself nestles on the hillside wth lots of ponds, enclosures and a huge walk-in aviary complete with 100 foot waterfall. Apart from the penguins who were a sorry looking bunch mostly interested in their compatriots staring at them from the mirrored wall, most of the birds were from Asia and therefore exotic - Jurong's claim that it is "where colour lives" is indeed true. NB: Do penguins do anything other than stand around in large huddles anyway?

Looks like a Dodo...

Add caption

The local wildlife has made itself at home!

Shaggy pelicans... look more like cuddly toys!

Our tactic of arriving just after mid-morning and leaving when extreme hunger set in during the early afternoon meant we missed all the shows - parrots feeding, hawks flying, pelicans being fed and so on.  Despite this we enjoyed our walk especially in the big jungle filled aviary where the punk pigeons, the purple finches and the brilliantly coloured starlings kept us entertained. Setting a bird park in a tropical region is genius - the exotic rainforest plants with their blowsy blooms and generous greenery make a superb backdrop for the splashes of colour of feathers of every hue. Seeing lovebirds not paired up on a perch in a UK petshop, but flying freely back and forth from a bird table covered in fruit and seed was a treat with their trim colouring and beady white rimmed eyes - they do look like they have been painted. The flamingoes splashing through the fountain and sifting the mud around the lake shore looked completely at home even though they are normally found in much drier climes.

However when it came to feeding ourselves we discovered that the food on offer was, like many an attraction the world over, mediocore at best. The big bowls of luke warm laksa, Singapore's national dish were a travesty, one prawn, tastless noodles and little of the coconutty spicyness that makes this a favourite comfort food everywhere on the island. As we ate we realised many of our fellow diners were leaving their food almost untouched. Next time we'll come earlier or later to catch the morning or afternoon shows and plan to eat elsewhere.
Even starlings and pigeons manage to look exotic

My favourite - the punk pigeon!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

It's a Dog's Life

The Sentosa Fairy
Online forums can provide an amazingly amount of help for cruisers and expats alike. The Grenada Cruisers Facebook page, the similar ones for other areas of the Caribbean proved invaluable when trying to source a spare part or an odd foodie item. During my initial weeks in Dubai I found the help and support from the ladies of the Expat Woman forum invaluable for locating items and services in a new and very big city.  And here in Singapore there are several such forums mostly aimed at expat mums some open some not but all usually a cornucopia of local knowledge.

However sometimes the casual browser whiling away a few idle moments (Who am I kidding? I can waste a whole couple of hours before breakfast unless I keep my FB habit in check) I find the responses to someone else's odd problem serves mostly to entertain or worse annoy. I now studiously avoid threads on "helpers" as few expats seem to realise they are employers and their paid servant is not supposed to dictate the terms of the relationship or it will end in tears usually those of the sad momma with a sweet baby who can't say no to her wilful maid. My sympathy lies actually with the employees, women who leave their young family many miles away to earn a little extra to put their children through school but find themselves in debt to the agent who arranged their flights, work passes and employment. They work six days a week, cleaning, cooking and childminding and are expected to sleep in the tiny bombshelter or on the wet kitchen floor. Keeping in the background, unseen by visitors yet blamed for the slightest sign that the hostess may have fallen short in terms of dust, plumped up cushions or supplies of coffee and biscuits. Rant over and anyway I have digressed.

Some threads however have me laughing out loud - the original question may be serious enough, though sometimes I wonder if the poster is really pulling the forum members' collective leg. However the responses even allowing for the fact that for many expats English is a foreign language, set me giggling - do people actually ever read back what they've typed before pressing "post" or realise they can edit their faux pas?  So for your delictation and delight here are the highlights from a recent doggy tale... I have removed names protect the innocent but the texts are the contributors' own and I've refrained from any (scarky) comments until almost the end:

"Good morning ladies, my golden retriever has been visiting the vet for her skin problems for the last few weeks. Whenever she finished her medication, she starts to scratch herself again and her skin seems red. We have stopped chicken in her diet, only salmon dry food for breakfast and fresh apples, fresh minced beef with sweet potatoes for dinner. Is there something I must avoid? Any advise? Many thanks."

A: Don't wash her, there has been a lot of discussion about this before I'll try and find the link.
A: Sorry can't get link to go in here, likely a yeast infection and sweat, if wash too often dogs own oils don't work, if going to wash use tea tree oil based product rather than oatmeal stuff, if you do a search on the forum for dog and yeast the thread will come up with everyone's advice

B:  Try getting her to eat raw papaya, it helped my boxer a bit. Agree re the washing. Keeping her cool is another good thing. Good luck. X

C:  Our lab eats only fish & salmon based food. Try one with less ingredients maybe. Maybe skip the beef for a few days and see if that helps.

D: Yes too much washing will further deplete the natural oils and contribute to discomfort and infection in dry patches.

 E: Hi there our darling weimanara got to the stage where he started getting bald patches and was bleeding. It broke my heart.We did everything vets told us including diet of frogs and yam and steroids and nation prices and shampoos etc. nothing helped!!!He went to my friends for 3 weeks and came back cured including hair grew back. We stopped all medication except for Zyrtec when gardeners . My friend used Johnson's baby shampoo so we have continued that and continued to feed same as she did ie chicken and rice with carrots onions and garlic and purina dry food.

F: It seems a lot of dogs have this issue here. Look into "Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Natural Health for Cats and Dogs". Your dogs immune system is down due to steroids or antibiotics. His book includes recipes and suggestion for vitamins including vitamin C which helps with skin issues

G:  We changed our dogs to a vegan food and the difference has been amazing.

H: It must be the food. There is something you give her that she does react on. My sister had it and she is just giving her dog now a special food. If you want me to ask her I can do it later in the day.
I: Countless dog owners have developed the same problem since moving here. It's really odd to think that every dog all of a sudden became allergic to dog food after they arrived?... Living in the states my dog ate everything!! Having said that, we do feed my dog a fish based dog food now and give her fish oil and it does seems to help. I think the humidity really takes a toll on the dogs skin. Best of luck to you.... Been there!!

J: Avoid anything sweet...

K: I've read a lot that beef is also a well known pet allergy food...I would try eliminating that..and either choose a limited ingredient kibble or start home cooking to see what works......

L:  My dog suffered for a long time with skin allergies here so I had him blood tested at the vet for what not to feed him. They sent the blood to the US for testing. So are years of feeding him chicken turns out he was allergic to it and lamb. But I do believe the climate here has a lot to do with it also as he never had a problem until moving here.

OP:  No [K], no grains, no meat or poultry content, no artificial ingredients.

[ED: so just what are you feeding your poor dog on then - cabbage? Ah no I seem to recall you listed apples, salmon, minced beef and sweet potatoes...]

M: My cat(!) has the same issues and apparently she is allergic to protein. You can buy special food for them but very expensive as well... Of course...

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Moving In

The Alexandra Canal alongside our complex -
muddy cos its been partly drained
for work downstream
 Friday 31 October 2014, hard to believe that almost a year since our eventful voyage from Morocco to the Canaries Temptress’ crew is the other side of the planet signing for the keys to our new home for the next couple of years. Some things however don’t change; some of you may recall during our time in Dubai the hot rain in the master bathroom in the middle of the night due to a burst water heater and the massive laundry cupboard flood. True to form, here the kitchen water heater unused for several months and turned on to test it worked, sprung a leak whilst the paperwork was being completed! Over the next couple of days we realised that the previous tenants had also not reported a leak from a loo cistern, another from under the washing machine and yet more from both kitchen sink wastes. Our snagging list grew rapidly longer as it also included the AC which quite patently had not been serviced as per our request, three electric sockets that have no power (not a great loss as they are in abundance) together with several blown light bulbs out of reach of a 5 ft 8 in human standing on the tallest thing available a dining chair!

Back to that Friday morning…the building management team arrived with a stepladder and turned off the water supply, just as in the Middle East each bathroom and kitchen has its own water heater tucked away in the ceiling space. Our kitchen heater is above the laundry area which is a sort of balcony beyond the kitchen door giving access to most of the apartments AC units. I mopped up the mess with an old towel. The recently painted ceiling didn’t look too bad but the light fitting was full of rusty water. In the afternoon Sam the local plumber came to review the problem, he’d order a new heater on Monday and turned up smiling the following Thursday with his assistant to install the replacement and seal around the leaking toilet. He plans to come again to replace both a cracked loo seat and the kitchen sink unit once he has sourced similar sized ones.
You won't get lost on this canal path
(properly called a PCN route - Park Connector Network)

Triangular flats
I suppose this was the best shape they could squeeze in!

The upper canal is covered

Monday was pretty busy with various tradesmen coming and going; City Gas to turn on and check the supply to our amazing 5 burner hob. Apparently Singaporeans prefer gas as it is much easier to control when stir frying; most of the local cooking is in the Malay or Chinese style ie rapidly fried or steamed. The central burner is a long oblong one - I have yet to work out its purpose but we have one large burner with supports designed to securely hold a large wok and three others of a more European style. The gas is fierce I’ve mostly been using it turned down low. As the gas man left Garry arrived to install our Starhub boxes for TV, landline and wifi – he is a 3rd party contractor who makes a living from the fact that Starhub themselves cannot cope with the number of connection requests they have each week. Before he’d finished, the AC guy turned up and then disappeared – I eventually realised that this apartment has another AC ledge outside one of the master ensuite windows accessible only via a step ladder! The AC service was only partly completed. The units that were cleaned and re-gased now work perfectly but the main living room unit needs a “chemical clean ma’am” for which building management have to provide permission so it is still on the to do list a week later! Not a problem as during the day we mostly have all the doors and windows open like the majority of our neighbours to induce a cool breeze through the place. The only issue is in the evenings when the breeze drops away and the humidity rises or when a thunderstorm comes through with its gusty winds requiring us to shut every utside door and window as it drives the heavy rain hard against the building.

The covered area is a wetland that
forms a filter system - eventually we drink this
water from Marina Bay Reservoir by the coast

Spot the turtles

A pretty and quiet garden
Tuesday morning the new bed arrived so we now have a double bed as requested in our guest bedroom. The LOI process seems to work! The flat itself is sparsely furnished. Our spacious entrance hall cum dining cum living room contains the essential shoe cupboard as it is etiquette here to remove ones footwear before entering an apartment (most of our neighbour have shoes littered across their front step in the evenings), a dining table with 6 chairs, one huge white leather L-shaped sofa, a coffee table and a TV unit; all except the sofa well used dark stained IKEA offerings. In the bedrooms apart from the beds there is a single office swivel chair, a desk cum dressing table, a narrow book shelf a chest of drawers and a single wardrobe again all IKEA but this time in a beech type finish! Both bedrooms also have a range of fitted wardrobes. Until our other two suitcases arrive in Singapore later this month (as of this morning the ship carrying them was entering the Straits of Gibraltar) we have only the few clothes we could squeeze into two sailing bags and a suitcase!

One of our first purchases will be some rugs in attempt to deaden some of the echo-iness of the place as well as add some colour to our black and white existence. With high ceilings and marble flooring in the living areas any conversation or TV noise seems to reverberate around the place. Both bedrooms have gorgeous honey coloured solid hard wood floors referred to as parquet but closer in appearance to the engineered wood flooring popular in the UK rather than the herring bone pattern most Brits think of as parquet. All easy to clean but not good acoustically!

The Blue Mosque
- not as big as the Istanbul one but very pretty

Queenstown School

Lots of explanatory signs along the route
Queenstown had the first social housing (HDB flats),
the first public library and more
The tiny ghost ants which seemed to swarm around the place as we moved in, have mostly taken themselves off elsewhere though a few occasionally appear if we leave any crumbs around. We’ve a plethora of tiny grey ant traps at doors and on window sills which should discourage them. One cockroach was discovered under the kitchen cupboard bin and was rapidly dispatched on day 2, we renewed the roach traps just in case but have not seen any evidence of it having “friends”. And more welcome I caught a brief glimpse of a pale tiny geeko on the tiled wall below the upper kitchen cupboards early last week, I presume he is still in residence despite the dearth of ants and all the disturbances.

The heat and humidity are much as per the Caribbean’s wet season. The year round tropical temperatures and rain mean the green jungle seems only just to be held at bay, the gardens around our block are a riot of exotic greenery. Trees have huge flowers that carpet the ground beneath in pink or white after the daily rain. Stephanotis perfumes the air along the canal side walkways. Turtles, terrapins and carp populate the local ponds. Tall ferns and broad leafed plants take root wherever there is a patch of open ground even on the way out of the Plaza Singapura shopping centre car park in the centre of town! This must be one of the few cities in the world where it is permanently Autumn and Spring combined – leaf sweeping seems a daily occupation as is pruning roadside trees to prevent rain storms bringing the heavy new leaf laden boughs tumbling down on pedestrians and traffic.

So there we have it – we’ve moved in and are settling down, missing our floating home like crazy but enjoying exploring our temporary land-based one for now. Hope you like the accompanying piccies - they are from Saturday's walk along the canal that runs past our home...
Waters meet - the upper end of Alexandra canal

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Tree Tops

Well signposted
Last Sunday morning we decided to get some exercise. Having really enjoyed the Grenadian Walking Hashes and some walks in even hotter steamier Trinidad, one of the Singapore National Park trails appealed. Actually we originally planned to go for a walk on Satruday morning but a night out at the pub with the British Association on Friday and a wet Saturday morning put paid to that plan.

The Tree Tops walk had been recommended to us so we set off mid-morning for the short trip to Venus Drive in the centre of the island close to the eastern tip of MacRitchie Reservoir. From the car park the path to the Tree Tops Walk is slightly muddy but becomes more firm as it climbs the hillside. Despite being fairly close to a road you feel you are deep in the rainforest which is amazing considering how densely populated this island is compared to Grenada or Trinidad. A family ahead of us spotted a large lizard sunning itself – probably a Clouded Monitor as it was smaller than the Malaysian Monitor we spotted much later. We stopped and the monitor obligingly posed for photos before being startled by another group’s approach. It pays to do this walk quietly!

Cloud Monitor Lizard
You don't get signs like this in Grenada!

Pleasant walkways - but lots and lots of steps!

Manicured views - this is primarily a water collection area

More odd signs...

It being Sunday morning there were lots of people with the same idea as us, some even in running kit which seemed like madness. The climb up the hill to the start of the circular Tree Tops Walk was a couple of kilometres. Then it is pure rainforest – ferns, palms and tall spindly trees, though well signposted. Suddenly we were at the bridge over the trees; the suspension bridge spans a valley at heights of up to 25m above the ground meaning only the tallest trees were on a level with us, most of the canopy was spread below. It was amazing to be walking so high up on this single track slightly swaying bridge – not for the faint hearted and not somewhere you’d want to be in one of Singapore’s infamous thunderstorms.

Tree Tops Bridge

Tree top views

Its a long way down!
Glimpses of the upper and lower reservoirs could be had as we traversed but only in one direction could you see the faint distant outline of a highrise block. The bridge is narrow so only one way pedestrian traffic is permitted. Only 30 people are permitted on the bridge at one time but there is plenty of time to stop and take in the views. At the far end the path climbs many wooden steps before descending down a lengthy board walk; the next day our calves really felt all those steps up and down. Information boards identified plants and animals of the area - apparently there are terrapins in the shallow stream but we saw only a few tiny fish and some dragon flies with solid dark red wings.

A local Chinese lady pointed out our second monitor of the walk which obligingly posed on a fallen log for the cameras. Then a few yards further on we came upon a troop of monkeys, Long Tailed Macaques. They were quite fearless, obviously used to humans; the younger ones came and played at Kevin’s feet, another with a tiny tiny baby seemed immune to our presence a few feet away whilst the elder of the troop sat a little further off aloof but watchful.

Red winged dragon fly

A wilder view - the stream

A squirrel

Fungus on a fallen log

Spot the baby!

Showing off
The circular walk taking in the bridge is around 3 or 4 km eventually we were back on our outward path heading towards the car park. There were several “huts” offering shade and seating to rest in enroute making it a pleasantly enjoyable three hour or so walk. And as the National Parks website offers many more such walks in the green corridors of Singapore we intend to exploit this resource a lot during our stay.

Next up we think is an expedition along some or all of the old railway running through Bukit Timah known as the Green Corridor which is just a few minutes walk from our current apartment although exploring the Botanic Gardens also appeals.
And back at the car a grasshopper!