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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Friends and strangers in Singapore

I feel tall in Asia.  I like that.  As a 5’8” man, it’s unusual for me to be looking down at the top of people’s heads when I’m in the hotel elevator or on the subway.  I’m not towering over people, but few people are towering over me, which is a nice change. 
It’s easy to feel small in downtown Singapore, no matter how tall you are.  The city skyline is jammed with massive skyscrapers, shooting upward like saplings yearning for sunlight in a dense forest.  The most striking structure is the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino complex.  It gives the appearance of a cruise ship that fell out of the sky and landed on three tall buildings.  There is an observation deck on the very top, but we never made it up there during our time in Singapore.  The rainy weather, the quest for visas for Vietnam, and a mission to recover a misplaced IPad kept us occupied.


Singapore has a reputation of being a very clean and safe city, especially for one of it’s considerable size, and it certainly lived up to that.  There’s no sign of homelessness, little if any litter, and no beggars at all.  And unlike in most other big cities, there’s no visible police presence.  In our five days there, we only saw police cars twice, and they were both in the exclusive neighborhood around the Vietnam Embassy.  In New York or Paris, you are serenaded to sleep by sirens, but we didn’t hear a single one in Singapore. 

A siren went off in my head when I returned to our hotel room after running an errand the day after we arrived.  Annie and the kids wanted to know if I knew where the IPad was.  When we travel on airplanes, I keep the IPad in a pocket designed specifically for such a device in a travel vest I brought along on the trip.  It’s a Scottevest and it has around 27 pockets in it, for ID cards, your phone, sunglasses, maps, pretty much anything you don’t want to be carrying in your hands when you travel.  A co-worker of mine at the radio station who travels a lot lent it to me and it’s been great.  You load it up and feel a bit like a burro as you walk through the airport, but when you get to security, you take it off, put it in a bin and stroll confidently through the checkpoint, hands free.  And the IPad was in the Scottevest when we got on the plane in Brisbane, but I got it out for Ben to use as we headed for Singapore.

Normally, the IPad is one of the main distractions on a flight, with all the apps and books we have loaded on there.  But Etihad Airlines has a fantastic in-flight entertainment system called the Ebox, which offers a wide selection of TV shows, movies and games to enjoy for free during the flight.  I slipped the IPad into the seat back pocket in front of Ben when we were getting ready to take off, and left it there when we de-planed in Singapore. 

I felt horrible about leaving the IPad behind.  I’m always on the kids about remembering things, and here good old Dad had failed big time.  Part of the pain, of course, was the cost.  We spent the money on the IPad figuring it was a good investment for the trip.  We loaded it up with books to read, plus it had a lot of apps and was Ben’s major entertainment device.  He played Madden Football on it, along with several racing games and some military games, as well as catching up with friends from back home via Facetime, including once when we were in Auckland.  

I also found an app that Marley loved to play, where you run a restaurant and have to perform at a certain level to advance to nicer restaurants.  We had several travel guides on it as well, which were very helpful as we planned our next step along the way from our current stop. 

All that is running through my head as I’m trying to figure out if there’s any chance we could get it back.  Annie, a veteran of the airline industry back in her days as a multi-tasker for People Express and an avid business traveler, thought it was a goner.  I felt differently because of the experience we had during the flight from Brisbane to Singapore.  Etihad provided first-class service and I was optimistic that the crew that goes through the cabin between flights would find it and deal with it properly.  I knew I wasn’t the first passenger to leave a pricey electronic device behind, so I was hopeful as I called the Lost and Found department of Etihad at the Singapore Airport and left a voice mail message explaining my plight.  That message was not returned for the rest of that day, and with no answer to a few more phone calls I made to the office, my optimism was fading.

I was still feeling pretty low as we went out for lunch the next day at the Marina Sands complex downtown.  We took the very efficient and clean MRT Subway system from our hotel to the waterfront complex, looking for something to eat and then something to do.  The Marina Sands features a massive high-end shopping complex, with several floors of pricey brands including Gucci, Louis Vitton, Chanel, Armani, etc, etc.  It also included an “authorized Apple retailer” where I painfully noticed IPads for sale in the $800 range.  That didn’t help my mood much as we hit the food court and found some pretty good choices for lunch, after which we planned to check out the Titanic Exhibit at the adjacent Art and Science museum.  My mood improved when my mobile phone rang as I was digging into my Chicken and Rice.  The caller was a woman from Etihad, asking for me.  Why, yes, they had our prodigal IPad and I just needed to call the main office at the airport and make arrangements to pick it up.  It was one of the better moments of the trip so far for me, and made the rest of the day very enjoyable.

It was just after the good news from the airline that Ben and I decided to get a couple of banana smoothies at a nearby stand in the mall food court.  As the smoothies were being made, I glanced to the left and saw a guy in his 20s who looked to be wearing a Reds hat.  My mood was brightened by the good news of the discovery of the IPad, I decided to go over and say hi.  He didn’t appear to speak any English, but another person at the table spoke enough to understand me explanation that I was from the city represented by the white wishbone C on the red and black hat.  He posed for a quick picture, and then Ben and I headed back to our table to finish our smoothies.

One of the main reasons we had chosen Singapore as a stop along the way was because Annie had a former co-worker who had moved there a little over a month before we were scheduled to be there.  We were looking forward to seeing him, but he had a busy work schedule it turned out, and was only available one of the five nights we were going to be in Singapore, so we made plans to see him then.

We also had a friend from our neighborhood in Madeira who had just started a two-year assignment in Singapore with the San Francisco-based company he had worked for in Cincinnati.  He had a busy work week as well, but managed to free up some time early one evening to meet us for dinner.  Since he had done some previous shorter stints in Singapore, he suggested we meet at a local landmark, a mixture of a lion and fish fountain, which sprayed water out of it’s mouth into the bay.  We picked a spot that had some outdoor seating and took in the view over some appetizers and drinks.  The sun was setting and our companion informed us that pretty soon we would be treated to a light show that they put on every night from the top of the Marina Bay Sands across the water.  The display was loosely timed to some electronic music that played over a series of speakers pointed toward the water.  It went on for about ten to fifteen minutes, and was a great backdrop for catching up with a friend from back home.

We caught up with Annie’s former co-worker the next night at a food center a short walk from our hotel.  The food center, or hawker stands as they are called, was one of a series of such places that Singapore is well-known for.  We first saw one on Anthony Bourdain’s Layover show on the Travel Show a few weeks before we launched on the trip.  They feature about three dozen food stands, selling mostly Asian food, with many tables and seating in the center of the complex.  

The moment you walk into the open-air food center, you are approached by guys holding menus trying to get you to take a seat and then order food from their stands.  We each found something that sounded tasty and all the dishes we chose were very flavorful and very affordable, most for under $10.  The third and final night we ate at the hawker stand, we met up not only with Annie’s former co-worker but also a former Comair pilot that Annie and I had be-friended when we were out one night in Northern Kentucky about six or seven years ago.  We hadn’t heard from him in quite some time, but he chimed in on Facebook when Annie posted something about being in Singapore.  It was great to see him as well as we caught up on old times.  
On our final full day in Singapore, I played a round of golf with our friend from back home who is on a two-year work assignment.  We played the Marina Bay Golf Club, which is the only 18-hole public golf course in Singapore.  


The main attraction of the golf course is the location, just across the bay from the Central Business District, giving players fantastic views of the Singapore skyline.  The other dominating feature unfortunately is the construction visible all around the entire course.  At one point, I paused and counted 29 cranes within view of a single hole.


The course also had several light poles used for the night golf sessions it offered a few nights a week.  Those also took away from the peaceful feeling I usually enjoy on the golf course.  But I tried to ignore that and focus on the golf and the good time I was having with my friend from back home and the other player we were paired with.  His name was Anson and he told us on the second tee that it was his first time playing with "strangers" as he put it and he was a bit nervous about it.  I pointed to my partner in crime from the states and told Anson that they didn't come much stranger that us, and that put him at ease some.   

Anson seemed to relax some as the round went along and we cheered on his many good shots, including a birdie chip-in on the back side.  Heavy rains forced the clearing of the course, so we waited out the delay at the restaurant on the golf course.  We had a nice chat with Anson, as he talked more about the thought process he had when he got up that morning:  call some friends and play with them, or forge into the unknown and play with strangers.  After we exchanged business cards, I told him I'd like to think that the strangers he played with were now his friends. 

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