Sunday, June 21, 2009

Travel “Best Of”

Looking back on our Singapore experience, I feel very, very lucky. (Which perhaps is ironic, considering how often I’ve complained about the country’s manic obsession with lucky draws, fortune, and the 4-D lottery.) Three years ago, I couldn’t even point out Singapore on a map. But in the last few years, I’ve had the chance to experience some truly amazing places and cultures in the surrounding area. I’d had no idea what I was missing! In hopes of inspiring some future travel for others like me, here’s our “best of” travel list from the region.

Best hotel chain: Shangri-La. Singapore’s has a fabulous multicultural breakfast, Sydney’s has a panoramic view, and Kota Kinabalu’s (in Borneo) has an Ocean Wing with over-the-top beachfront luxury at the price of a standard room in NYC.

Best once-in-a-lifetime: the Maldives, whether at the laid-back Cocoa Island, with its coral reefs just steps from the villas, or the Conrad, with its underwater restaurant.

Best cultural immersion: Ubud, Bali (Indonesia), at the luxe Pita Maha Resort & Spa or on the cheap at Ketut’s Place. Eat dinner at Ketut’s for an authentic introduction to Balinese life, and catch a Kecak performance or shadow puppet play. Runner up: Arun Residence in Bangkok, Thailand, for a local feel, fantastic food, and a waterfront view of the temple Wat Arun from your bed.

Best wildlife: crocodiles, hornbills, monkeys, orangutans, and pygmy elephants spotted while staying at the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge in Borneo. Runner-up: Singapore’s Night Safari just before closing, when the bats, flying squirrels, wolves, and lions are most awake.

Best “discovery”: the overgrown Cambodian temple ruin of Ta Prohm at dawn, before anyone else has arrived. Runner-up: the lagoons of Phang Nga Bay in Phuket, Thailand, accessible only by kayaking through pitch-black limestone caverns when the tides are right.

Best British Colonial indulgence: High tea at the elegant, soothing Tiffin Room at Singapore’s classic Raffles Hotel (do it soon—I hear it may not be there for long).

Best entertainment: the beautiful and creative Disney Seas park at Tokyo Disney. Worth spending at least a day or two, even if—especially if—you’re not a kid.

Best inexpensive city tours: commuter ferries. In Hong Kong, the best skyline view is from the ferry at night (fare: about 50 cents US). On the Sydney ferries, for just a few dollars you can spend a day exploring each harbor in turn.

Best of nature: Tie. Te Anau, New Zealand, for nearby glowworm grottoes and spectacular morning sea kayaking in the fjord of Milford Sound. Or drive the scenic Great Ocean Road from Melbourne, Australia, and stay at the Ecolodge. Help feed orphaned joeys; watch koalas, kangaroos, and wombats in the wild; and see a dazzling night sky.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ain’t Walkin’ No More

We are stateside now. It took a five-week whirlwind of frenetic packing, sorting, redistributing, and moving, but now two adults, one cat, and a dozen bags of assorted personal belongings have arrived in NJ. (The rest of our stuff is in a container ship still floating across the Pacific.) What was our first impression on repatriating? Well . . .

We arrived in Newark on a grey, sunless afternoon. It wasn’t exactly cold—just limp. We had reserved a room at the airport hotel so we wouldn’t endanger fellow motorists by trying to drive after our 19-hour flight. Stepping outside the arrivals terminal, we could see the hotel across the parking lot. There was supposed to be a shuttle every 15 minutes. But it was still light, and we figured, how difficult could it be to get over there? Let’s just wheel our luggage and walk.

Five minutes later, we’d crossed the parking lot and were congratulating ourselves on not being lazy and taking the shuttle. We just had one street left to cross. Actually, it wasn’t exactly a “street.” Main thoroughfare, boulevard, autobahn, would all be more apt, given the way the drivers were careening from one lane to the next. Not wanting to play Frogger with our luggage, we glanced around looking for a pedestrian bridge or even a crosswalk—common enough where we’d come from. But not only was there no footbridge, there was actually a barrier of some sort that made walking across impossible, with luggage or not.

Disgruntled, we walked back across the parking lot and waited for the shuttle. We hauled our dozen pieces of luggage up onto the bus, then waited as it slowly chugged around the airport loop. Fifteen minutes later, it turned onto the street where we’d originally stood and dropped us off at the hotel entrance. Total time: 35 minutes. We could have walked it in 10.

Now that we’re in our temporary apartment (waiting for our stuff to arrive), it’s much the same. Few sidewalks. No footbridges. And when people in our complex need to take their trash to the community dumpster two blocks away, they don’t walk there. They drive.

US car-centered infrastructure: 1
Singaporean pedestrian-friendly lifestyle: 0

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tennis in the Jungle

We walk onto the tennis court in the darkness, breathing in the heavy, soup-thick night air. Our sweat pools, helpless in the lack of breeze. We are grateful for the absence of the sun, but even without it the temperature matches that of our bodies.

When we were still new to this place, we learned quickly that to play in the daytime, scorched by the sun and slowly steamed by the surrounding air, is simply not possible. Instead, we schedule our games to catch the precious few hours during which Singapore is magical: before 8 a.m. and after the regular sunset at 7 p.m. Often, as we play, a cooling breeze brings blessed relief from the heat of the day future or past, and the clouds drift lazily across the sky in the twilight. Beyond that, we play on into darkness, hidden at last from the equatorial sun.

Yet to be hidden from the sun is not always to be hidden from the heat, and tonight the heat presses down on us inexorably. We heave heavy, damp balls back and forth across the net with labored movements and measured steps, each breath taking in more water than oxygen in the tropical humidity.

A storm must be brewing somewhere off the coast, to bring such density to the air; the moths realize it, too, and suddenly they are out in force around the bright lights of the court. Some venture lower, flying across the court, darting in front of our faces with utter disregard. As one flies across the court on a collision course with my racket, I duck, and the ball goes flying by me. Trudging to the backcourt to retrieve it, I brush away furry wings swarming around my head. We try not to open our mouths.

But relief has arrived: we hear the high-pitched squeaks in the trees, and now the bats are awake and swooping through the courts. Their tiny, dark bodies dive through the air, catching a moth in the bright-lit air of the court before disappearing upward into the darkness to start again. The bats work quickly; minutes later, the moths have disappeared, except for a hardy half-dozen or so still trying to singe themselves on the tall fluorescent lights. The bats have disappeared, too, their job of nightly pest control only just begun.

Slowly we begin to breathe easier in the now-clear air and, finally, the slowly dissipating heat. We gradually settle into our usual pace, relaxing to the regular rhythm of our shots and the bounce of the ball. Later, as we drag our sweat-laden bodies off the court into the shocking cold of air-conditioning, we smile sadly, knowing all of this—the heat, the moths, the bats—will soon be just a memory.

It was our last night of tennis in the jungle.