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Getting There 12/24-27/05

December 24, 2005 Colton, NY

While everybody else is snug in their beds with visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in their heads, we spend the last hours of Christmas Eve packing up for our trip to New Zealand. We can't bring much as we will be traveling by bicycle and as it gets later I find myself facing difficult decisions: should I put in a pair of mittens or could I use an extra pair of socks for my hands if it gets really cold? Which journal gives me the most writing space for the least amount of weight and bulk? And most difficult of all for a dedicated bibliophile, which books should I bring?

December 25, 2005 North America

The Ottawa International Airport isn't exactly crowded at 3:00 AM Christmas morning, but there are more people up and about than I had imagined there would be. We push our luggage into line-- a duffle bag and two cardboard bike boxes, one of them an embarrassingly long tandem box. We try not to look worried, but we are. What if the box is too long and we aren't allowed to bring it with us? Fortunately, our Air Canada official doesn't blink an eye and even escorts us to the oversize luggage conveyor belt.

The first two legs of our journey are short-a hop to Montreal then a several hour flight to Los Angeles. I sleep most of the way, trying to make up for our all-nighter.

We are traveling backwards in time and it is still Christmas morning when we stand in more lines at the LA airport. A fellow passenger speculates that no one wants to work on Christmas day and so all the portals are understaffed. Our lines rival those I've read about in Soviet Bloc countries and I try to look like a patient Communist during our interminable waiting and standing. Our two-hour layover turns into a mad rush for our gate at Singapore Air. We are three of the last passengers ushered on.

December 26, 2005 Over the Pacific

This day passes by in a dreamy blur. Singapore Air is known for its attentive service and the beautiful flight attendants ply us with hot towels and cold drinks and incredible meals. We stop for a short layover in Tokyo and wander around in the gift stores, eying the dried octopus legs and shrimp-flavored potato chips. Eleven-year-old Jay spends 100 yen on a tube of "strawberry chewing candy". He reports it tastes much like Starbursts.

December 27, 2005 Singapore

We reach Singapore at 1:30am and as our flight to New Zealand doesn't leave until 9:30 in the evening we are given a "free" hotel room for our "Singapore Stopover Holiday". I've given up trying to figure out what time my body clocks think it is and I'm wide awake as we ride a bus along the edge of the island, past rows of palm trees and stores where the signs are written in Chinese, Malay and English. Our hotel, the Golden Landmark, is a high rise on the edge of Little India. The tenth floor room is worn, but very comfortable and we sleep for several hours.

By 8:00am Singapore time we are out exploring. The day is steamy and has the sweet tropical smell of rotting food that I remember from West Africa. Our guidebook shows three Buddhist temples not far away and we meander toward them, crossing wide streets of busy traffic and narrow lanes where tiny shops spill out onto the sidewalks. Many of the buildings are stucco with colorful shutters and tiles and living quarters upstairs. At what seems to us an open-air cafeteria we stop to buy breakfast. Photos and lettering advertise Viscera Soup and Turtle Skin Stew, but we try the homemade noodles. Our big bowls of soup with noodles, a poached egg, two "fish balls" (fishy tasting dumplings) and a garnish of what looks like dried minnows cost $2.00 Singapore, or about $1.50 US. We are cautious with the little dish of chopped red peppers that accompany each bowl. When I take one miniscule bite of the pepper my mouth lights on fire.

The first temple has a garish façade of hundreds of painted ceramic figures. A sign in English explains that the artwork illustrate events in the life of Vishnu. The second temple contains an enormous sitting Buddha with his robes painted bright yellow and the third temple looks old, with heavy wooden eaves and scrollwork of story scenes. The third temple has a school, closed.

We wander back to the hotel along a different path, past open-air restaurants filled with people who look Chinese or Indian or Malaysian. Singapore has a rich mix of cultures. If we hadn't just had breakfast, I would try more of the interesting dishes I see on the tables.

Back at the hotel we shower and check out, leaving our bags behind the desk. Our next destination is the Nature Reserve in the north part of the island. The guidebook suggests a walk there, in the jungle, with monkeys. I'm intrigued.

First we take a subway, easy with automated ticket machines and clean, frequent trains. We end up in a small mall and Tom gravitates toward the bakery. We eat our rolls in a small park, and wait out a brief thundershower under a roof. It is still very urban, though we know the jungle and the reservoir are somewhere to the west of us. It doesn't look far on the map, so we start walking. We walk past high-rise apartment buildings, a Catholic church and school, a new complex of government buildings and a police academy. Finally we ask directions and then walk more, stopping under a tree during the next rain shower. Only Tom has a raincoat.

By the time we find the reservoir, Jay is grumpy about the long walk. He perks up though when we walk on docks above swimming turtles and huge fish, perhaps carp. I'm still holding out for the monkeys and it looks hopeful when we see signs warning against feeding them. Our trail becomes a boardwalk at the edge of the reservoir and with water on one side and jungle on the other, it seems a long way from the teeming city around us. The trail even has interpretive signs in English. If we get far enough we'll be able to walk on a treetop platform and see the top of the jungle.

But we've forgotten about tropical rain. The next storm is intense-- heavy rain beating against the water, and against us. This time a tree doesn't shelter give any shelter, though we try huddling against one. Two young men hike by, their t-shirts drenched and we smile at each other, fools together. We meet again at a small shelter where all the hikers in the area have gathered to wait out the rain. Everyone is laughing and enjoying the minor calamity of drenched clothing in a tropical climate. We talk with the young men and learn they are Malaysian and came to Singapore for jobs. One of them works at the National Library. They hiked the loop we had hoped to do and they saw the monkeys. Dang.

I can't persuade Tom and Jay to continue our hike and it is getting late. This time when we reach the edge of the park we take a bus back to the train station and eliminate the long walk.

Back at the hotel we sit outside in the late afternoon heat, waiting for our shuttle bus. It's too cold inside the air-conditioned hotel for us in our wet clothes. The shop across from us advertises " A Paradize of Fine Dates and Perfumes." I don't quite see how they belong in the same store, but I still have much to learn about Singapore. And even though our Stopover Holiday in Singapore was involuntary, I'd do it again, and for longer. The island country is friendly and exotic and English-speaking, making it an easy place to visit.

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