Monday, November 22, 2010

Last days and coming home

What do most people buy when they travel and are faced with weight restrictions? Me? I buy books. I simply can’t help myself. If there’s a bookshop in front of me, I’m there. I spent time in Borders this afternoon. Much bigger than I’m used to at home with a wider range of products available – not just books.

Senior 'chill out' area, Australian International School.
On Thursday I visited the Australian International School and had a quick look around. It’s amazing the sense of space they’ve achieved inside the buildings when the outside space is so limited. The buildings are very different to what I’m used to but it still felt like a school, with the focus being the students and their needs.

Afterwards I went back to Orchard Road as I hadn’t seen the other end of it earlier. I don’t know why, I know I’m not a shopper, but apparently it’s the place to go. The Christmas decorations are going up at a rate of knots. I went past one huge tree inside a centre and could feel the heat from the fairy lights about two metres away. The only shop I actually went into was the Longines shop. I should have tried to find the bird park as I’d intended. Next time.

The flight home was mostly uneventful. The Captain put the seat-belt sign on every time there was the slightest turbulance so I felt a bit like a jack-in-the-box. Again, I had three seats to myself so I raised the armrests, stacked the pillows behind me and stretched out to read. Not a bad way to travel. I thought I should buy something duty-free so I spent some time going through the catalogue and eventually chose four fragrances to buy. Unfortunately they wouldn't take my debit-VISA cards. Why would they prefer to do business with people who are using borrowed money? The reason I was given was they would land and process the sales and they would bounce. I would have thought they'd have the same problem with credit cards being over the limit. Ah well, all it means for me is I came home with a slightly lighter bag and $400 richer than I planned.

Since getting home I've dropped straight back into my routine. That basically means I'm alternating between reading (and hibernating) and picking up and cleaning up after other people (one of my least favourite things and the reason I read so much). Tonight I need to write. There are just six days left of NaNo. I know there's no way I'll make the 50K but I want to do something more than I did in the first week.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The museum and shopping in Singapore

Singapore museum
I spent most of today on my feet. From 10.00 am to 1.30 pm I visited the museum. The Pompei exhibit was there. Most of it was resin casts and copies of things but I still walked out of there feeling for all the people who were there. They had a time-lapse (computerised) film of the eruption of Vesuvius at that time and I kept thinking ‘get out, get out’ until the 1.00 am eruption with the pyroclastic flows and then I thought, ‘too late’. Even if they’d left before that they might not have made it, not with all the ash rain 20m deep.

The next exhibit I went through was the history of Singapore. Just brilliant. The detail and the explanations behind every decision made, particularly since independence in the 60s was amazing. The foresight required to push for such drastic (at the time) measures is mind-boggling. I can’t decide how to make things happen for me tomorrow, let alone plan for a whole country for the next 50-odd years.

I left the museum because I’d been on my feet for four hours (I walked from the hotel) and still hadn’t had breakfast. Like the library, I could stay there for a couple of days and still have new things to look at.

After the museum came Orchard Road, the up-market shopping district. I didn’t last long. I’m not a shopper at the best of times and the idea of miles upon miles of shops doesn’t thrill me. I stayed there long enough to browse through two shopping centres and buy a few things and lunch (finally had the chicken rice everyone keeps recommending to me) and then decided enough was enough. I didn’t go through all the really expensive shops. It would be interesting but I know it’s not for me so other things keep being more important. I went back to Selangor Pewter and exchanged the pate knife I bought on Monday and then back to Chinatown to pick up my suit.

Tomorrow is my visit to the Australian International School. I’m really looking forward to that although getting there is a bit problematic. I have three maps and none of them show me exactly where the school is. I know the MRT stop to get off and the street name but that’s it. I guess I just need to look at it as another adventure, albeit one that has a time restriction since I have to be there by 11.30 am.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Round-the-island tour, Singapore

Today was amazing. The round-island tour is the best I’ve been on, along with the hop-on-hop-off tours. The guide gave a lot of basic information about how Singapore is organised. Things like the public housing system where 20% of income is put into a fund and that’s used to help you buy a house and provide for retirement. We drove through all the industrial areas and the sections of land that have been reclaimed from the sea were pointed out – there’s a lot of reclaimed land.

It’s absolutely amazing what has been done with such a small island in 45 years. The planning and organisation required to make it all work, and work so successfully, is just mind-boggling. Today was the first time I’d seen anything resembling a military presence too. Even then, even though areas were pointed out and I saw a lot of ‘restricted area’ signs, the only military personnel I saw apart from the guards at gates were National Service boys just finished their basic training and waiting at a bus stop. There are highways that can be turned into airfield within an hour or two. What a clever use of space.

We were told a story about two brothers who built a house in 1937. When the Japanese came, the house was bombed. One brother died during the Japanese occupation, the other survived to return to the house and witness the destruction of his home. He demolished the house and built a garden that showed 101 ways to behave well. The garden also included the ten gates of hell. The garden has pretty much been abandoned now and is slowly decaying. They’re trying to find sponsors to provide funding for the upkeep.

At one point I stood at the water’s edge and looked over the sea to another country. I’ve never done that before. In Australia, everywhere you look, there’s more Australia. To know that the land you’re looking at belongs to someone else with different rules and regulations, language and culture emphasised the transitory nature of life.

British barracks, Changi.
Changi museum and chapel was emotive. The British barracks are still there, untouched. Even though everything’s falling apart, you can still sense the lives of those lived there during that time. There’s still a prison on the site. We didn’t have access to that, of course, or to the original site of the prison that was there during WWII (it’s a huge tract of land). I had thought I’d be disappointed that there was so little left of what had happened, but I wasn’t. I’m glad there’s the memorial, but I’m even more glad that things have moved on from that time. They’ve taken the lessons to be learned and put things in place to try to prevent it happening again, but they’re not letting it control the lives of everyone living in Singapore. There’s a sense of the past underpinning the present but the future driving direction.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Raffles Tour, Singapore

Today has been a day of misunderstandings. The tour today was Raffles footsteps followed by high tea at Raffles Hotel and a boat ride from Clarke Quay. They were to pick me up from the hotel at 1.30pm. I was there from 1.15 – 1.45 but no one turned up. The Concierge knew nothing about it when I asked him at 1.40 so I walked to Raffles Hotel, totally forgetting about the Raffles footsteps part of the tour.

Raffles Hotel knew nothing about the tour either but let me ring the tour company from the lobby and wait in the lobby until the bus picked me up. The tour company weren’t happy with me and spent the rest of the afternoon checking where I was. Everybody knew my name because it was called out at every stop and I was given specific instructions separately!

The Writers Bar at Raffles Hotel
The main lobby, Raffles Hotel
Waiting in the lobby of Raffles Hotel was a treat. No one gets into the lobby of Raffles Hotel unless they’re staying there. They even let me take a photograph (I took two). Who could resist the sign! I nearly took three but the bird was too fast for me.

As I was sitting in the lobby I looked up to the balcony above and found a small bird perched on the ledge. He was leaning forward, ready for take-off and his gaze was firmly focused on the front door. When someone went through the door, the bird dropped from the ledge and swooped through the opening, the door closing regally behind him. He’s obviously done it before.

High tea at Raffles Hotel was different to the high teas I’ve had in Australia. Not as much food on the trays for one thing but the food was also different and offered differently. There was the usual trio with sandwiches, cake and petit fours (eight small sandwiches and four of each of the others). Tea was never-ending, leaf tea and freshly made. I’ve been missing my tea. Once the tea part was over there was a buffet on offer. There was a supply of steamed Asian things – little dumpling things with different fillings. The sweet and sour chilli sauce was good. The buffet also offered a range of cakes and desserts and fruit.

After Raffles Hotel was a boat tour. I’d taken a boat tour the other day and this was similar but I love being on the water. It’s such a relaxing way to spend time.

The Selangor Pewter shop was a must-see according to our guide. I didn’t mind because I like pewter and bought a pate knife with a sunflower pattern and a little merlion. I saw a gorgeous tea set that I would have loved. It was designed for the 125th anniversary of Selangor Pewter. A little out of my price range though. When I unpacked the pewter I found I’d been given the wrong knife pattern. I’ll have to take it back and change it.

The next misunderstanding came in Chinatown when I went for a fitting. I had arranged to fit the jacket being made today because I’m out all day tomorrow but the jacket wasn’t there. He’d written down tomorrow’s date in his book. I know I didn’t agree to that because I’m out all day. Now I have to go back again on Wednesday and hope there are no alterations required for the jacket. Otherwise I’ll have to go back again on Thursday. I’m spending more time in Chinatown than I am anywhere else. I'm starting to know my way around - and those of you who know my sense of direction will be amazed by that!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Singapore Zoo

At nearly 7am there were barely half a dozen cars on the road and two pigeons on the ledge outside my window – the first pigeons I’ve seen here. Noisy minahs (the brown ones with black heads) are the only birds I’ve seen here so far.

There are so many images that flash like strobe lights as I drive around. A tray-back truck full of men sitting in the back on their way to a construction site. A church, the grounds turned into a parking lot, regimented rows of people neatly filling inside. A man and a woman standing on a street corner, she coming barely to his chest, his upper body twisted towards her, leaning over her, eyes focused on her face. She, for that moment in time, is the whole focus of his being. A girl, riding pillion on a motor bike, light-weight skirt flying half-way up her back, white legs flashing in the light. The rider in front of her wearing protective clothing.

An Orang Utan
I went to the zoo this morning. We had two and a half hours there, including breakfast. In that time I managed to see only one third of the zoo and still nearly missed my bus – the only one for the day. I took a few good photos and a lot of really bad ones. I managed to get some shots of orang utans for Lois but unfortunately didn’t see the komodo dragon. On the bus there was a family from the Isle of Mann and another, three generations travelling together for a holiday, from Australia (Ipswich, Adelaide, Gold Coast, Melbourne).

It started raining on our way home. Thunder, lightning and heavy rain just as I was crossing the street. Now my shoes are wet and nothing dries here. I spent the afternoon watching the rain from my room and dozing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hands on Literacy Conference

The train trip this morning was interesting. Contrary to all evidence gathered here so far, there are people up and moving at 7am. Of course most of the people on the train (predominantly men) were asleep. How they managed to wake up just in time for their stop I don’t know.

Once off the train I headed for the bus stop and was almost immediately waylaid by a woman in baggy Adidas running shorts, a crushed t-shirt and thongs. “Are you going to the Hands on Literacy Conference too?” she asked. Is it tattooed to my forehead? No. I’m white. It was obvious I was there for a reason. We caught a taxi together to the school. It was obvious she’d spent the last 20 years in the US from the way she berated people who got into line ahead of us when we’d been standing there a while. She made no apology for it but I think she toned it down a lot for me because she kept telling me it was really obvious I was Australian. I didn’t get angry or angsty when the taxis didn’t stop immediately, happy just to enjoy the warm morning (sweltering, actually) and watch life go by.

The conference was an eye-opener. It’s organised by a very small group of people in the International Teacher Librarian Association. This was the second ever conference and there were probably 300 participants. Not bad for the second time around for a group of nine people. The focus of the conference was literacy, primarily ways to engage students in literacy, particularly when so many of them have English as a second language. By far the majority of the attendees were from international schools around the world and who teach English to students from varied backgrounds.

Ross Todd was absolutely brilliant, both as a keynote speaker and a seminar presenter. He’s so fired up and animated – so ‘into’ his topic. I wish I could be so enamoured of a field, the fire burns for years like that. His keynote and seminar segued so smoothly I barely noticed the room change. I have lots of Web 2.0 bits and pieces to share with the staff when I get back: ways to change students’ searching from information dumps to critical thinking strategies.

Fiction reading area, Senior Library, Tanglin Trust Schoo, Singapore
The school here is amazing. I haven’t seen much of it as we were inside all day but the fiction section in the senior library where Ross Todd’s seminar was held is amazing. What a great space. It’s also used for classes and committee meetings. The screen retracts.

The second guided inquiry seminar was interesting. It was good to see that the theory could be applied with successful outcomes but I think the presenter could have gone into more depth regarding student reactions and engagement in the project and how teachers found the process. She certainly had the time.

The storytelling workshop was a last minute change for me. I was sure it was just going to be a fun filler as the other seminar I wanted to attend had been cancelled. How wrong could I have been? Roger Jenkins’ story-time might have been aimed at the primary level but I could see so many applications at my school, simply because so many of our students have English as a second (or sixth) language and the stories would be a great way to engage them in a topic from the beginning and teach them some language skills at the same time. He showed us three different story styles and I could see applications in English, SOSE, Science, ESL and Tourism just from them. The possibilities are endless.

I met some lovely women at lunch who invited me to visit their school next week. I’ll email tomorrow to try to set that up. What a buzz.

Tonight is the after-conference dinner. I’m going partly because I met some lovely people today and might meet some more tonight but also because I need practice in social situations. I’m a social misfit so need all the practice I can get.

Friday, November 12, 2010


I'm visiting Singapore, ostensibly for a conference, but the conference is one day and I'm staying ten. I started this on Facebook but it was fiddly because I talk too much, so from today I'll post here. My photos will still mostly go on Facebook with a single sentence or two about what I've done.

I decided my blog would be easier for this as I talk a lot. Facebook is more for small news flashes.

Entrance to the National Library Singapore
I spent this morning in the National Library of Singapore. It’s a bright, airy silent place. There were lots of people there, mostly students from the look of them, but not one conversation, no study groups, even in the study room. Everyone sat individually and worked silently.

There’s no photography allowed so I sat and read a book on tea. It described the teas from each major region: India, Ceylon, China and Yassam, and how the growing conditions make the flavours so different. Anyone who knows me would be rolling their eyes about now, knowing I had a brilliant morning and wondering how it could be possible. Mix libraries/books and tea and I’m in heaven.

After the library I went back the Chinatown for a fitting. I took the bus this time and they dropped me at a different place from where I got off the train on Wednesday. I found Food Street. I swear that’s what the sign said. The narrow street was lined both sides with shops selling food. In front of most of the shops were booths selling food. A lot of those were closed. I expect they would open in the late afternoon: that seems to be when most things happen in Singapore. I wasn’t hungry so didn’t stop. Perhaps I’ll go back there for dinner one evening and see if I can match any of the smells to the food. Even though a lot of the places were closed there were still smells wafting around. Most of them I recognised but there was one strongly astringent one that almost bordered on rancid. I’ll try to make sure I never eat what made that smell.

I went back to the overpass where I sat for a time on Wednesday. I swear the same group of men were sitting in the pagoda – the only place guaranteed of shade. There are trees over most of the other tables but shade is patchy and the best ones were occupied. The tables have a game board etched into the centre. At least I think it was a game board. I can imagine those men in the pagoda coming out when the sun loses much of its heat and playing games in the garden. I sat under my umbrella, sweat dripping from my elbow, and drank the last of my water.

I saw Australian mangoes for sale: $5.60 each. I didn’t get one as all the fruit I’ve eaten here so far tastes slightly fermented. I think it would be difficult to prevent that in this heat. Nothing feels cold when I buy it. Food is kept cold: there are often thermometers on the glass to tell you how cold it is inside, but the drinks aren’t. I’ve bought bottled water and canned drinks a couple of times and they don’t develop any condensation and don’t feel cold to the touch. And everything’s small. The cans are 330ml. Lots of places have fridges at the entrance, filled with cans and water but the fridges are only about 60cm wide with half a dozen shelves. Half those shelves are stacked with water, the rest a mix of cans, most of which I don’t recognise. Coke and Pepsi are sold but you have to look for them and then it’s just the small cans and usually only one variety available. I haven’t seen any big Coke or Pepsi fridges like we have at home. I haven’t even seen a full-sized Mars bar. Chocolate is devilishly difficult to find just wandering around. And I’ve looked!

I think I need to go to the business district. There’s a busy-ness here, wherever I’ve been; a quiet desperation to make money, but there’s also a sense of calm. Didn’t I say yesterday that Singapore is a city of contrasts? I wonder what those who already make or have money feel like. I was going to Orchard Road this afternoon as it’s the other place that screams wealth but didn’t make it. I decided I’d drop in at my hotel to freshen up a bit (and pick up some more cash) before going to Orchard Road but I picked the absolute worst time to go back to the hotel for a break.

No sooner had I sat down than there was an announcement that the annual fire drill would be happening. Annual fire drill, and I walked in right then. I rushed around, thinking I’d get out before the alarm sounded but no such luck. I couldn’t even hide in my room and pretend I wasn’t there because I was standing in the lift area with a staff member when the alarm went off and the lifts disabled.

I asked what I should do but none of the three staff members on my floor seemed to know for sure. It seems the fire drill was mainly for staff. I asked if I had to go down the stairs and they all nodded and agreed with me and showed me where to go. I got down to the bottom to be told guests aren’t allowed to use the stairs. It took a while for me to get them to understand I was directed to do so because of the fire drill. I thought it odd that I was the only person in the stairwell the whole eight floors down, except for the ladder blocking access on the seventh floor, and have the distinct impression that guests were exempt from the drill. That seems a little odd. I’d like to think someone would at least check to see if I was out of the building if it came to that.

By the time I got to the lobby I was even more hot and exhausted than I’d been before. I sat there for a while contemplating my dilemma: go back to my room, go out as I was, go to the bar. The bar looked pretty good.

Eventually I decided to go out for dinner. I found a little restaurant around the corner from the hotel and had Black bean beef, Stir-fried vegetables and rice. It was like eating at a different restaurant at home. The food was similar enough that I recognised it instantly but there was a slight difference in flavour. The beef had lots of garlic – sliced not crushed – and big slices of ginger too. There are about five other similar looking restaurants in the same block so I’ll try a few of them.

Tomorrow’s the conference I came here for. I’m having such a good time looking around and doing my own thing I keep having to convince myself I really do need to go to this conference. They’re going to want feedback at the first staff meeting when I get back. It means getting up early. I have to be there between 8.30 and 9.00am. That in itself is odd for Singapore as nothing opens before 11.00am usually. The school I have to go to is on the opposite side of the city. A taxi would be the easiest but probably the most expensive too. I’m thinking of taking the MRT (love Singapore’s train system) to Orchard Road and then a taxi the rest of the way.