CHILE: NOVEMBER 2002
The flight to Chile with a plane change in Buenos Aires, Argentina was long, but better than I’d expected; BA oversold Economy and upgraded me to Business! Chile’s geography is certainly unusual. Take a long cooked noodle, lay it in front of you, north-south: Chile hugs the west coast of South America, starting at the middle; note the noodle’s north near the equator, one of the hottest driest places on earth, and south, thousands of islands down nearly to icy Antarctica, partly Chilean, and often raging with polar winds and snowy storms. Penguinos love it there, and seals, whales, and lots of birds I can’t name. Sharing the “lower half” of this continent is Argentina, where Mike’s meeting was originally scheduled, but for political reasons, the venue changed. (Everybody seems averse to gunfire!) North is Peru; northeast, Bolivia. It’s spring, and everywhere blazed azaleas, petunias, wisteria, roses, and bougainvillea, but malls were already decked with plastic Christmas snowflakes. How incongruous. Mike immediately checked out the bathroom sink to be sure that, indeed, the swirling water dropped counterclockwise. North Americans will observe it clockwise—because of the Coriolis effect.
Santiago’s weather and city are similar to San Diego in many ways, except in California you don’t glimpse the snow-capped Andes from every point. They were fantastic to fly over, glittering jagged white peaks poking through cloud wisps. On a good day they’re visible, and in smog they’re seen behind a gauzy curtain, as in LA or Denver. The city is full of handsome modern sleek tall buildings, engineered to withstand the occasional earthquake. That fault line worrying Los Angelinos continues south! A third of the nation’s population, nearly 6 of 16 million, lives here, sprawling through valleys.
Nearby are fertile river valleys, filled with fruit trees, grapes, palms, cacti, and more mountains, smaller and greener. Miles of lovely neighborhoods could be La Jolla, with way more graffiti, and a few that could be Mexico. (Could they ban spray cans?) Unlike Mexico, the nation is very clean, even bathrooms!--and cops are trustworthy. Maybe it’s the German influence. You can drink the tap water!!! It’s also very Caucasian, and we saw almost no Africans, but many people appear to have Indian blood. Highways are excellent and well marked, with toll stations, billboards, large American style gas stations, and green and white large metal highway signs like those in the US. I had expected more of a European look, but felt very much at home. Even the driving is on the “correct” side of the road, with large cars and modern pickups.
We were met by Jose from ONR, Office of Naval Research, who helped us in many ways. His family will join him soon, and he is an enthused new expat, just out of the Navy, with great Spanish facility. Many families on American salaries hire cooks and gardeners. Children go to private school. An indicator of safety is that the Ambassador jogs daily with no escort, which certainly isn’t true in any other South American nation.
The Plaza de Armas, main square in front of the Cathedral, is so named because of ancient gunpowder storage. Students gather there under tall palms, with painters and canvases, jugglers, ice cream sellers, families, and mounted Carabinieros. These police wear dark green kahki uniforms, like the Germans who once trained them. Persistent students tried to sell poems on small pieces of paper. They kept telling us in English how much money it cost to go to college. Inside the beautiful stone Spanish style cathedral, signs on the altars of the side chapels reminded us not to write on the altars, pillars, or walls. I saw graffiti scrawled only on one wooden confessional.
Mayan, Incan, and Toltec pottery and urns are displayed in the outstanding Pre-Columbian museum nearby, with pieces three thousand years old, and as burial-oriented as Egyptians. The latter never had Spanish Catholics bent on obliterating their religious and cultural pagan past! Unfortunately, they were as thorough as fervent, assisted by European diseases. There were fertility figures from 2300BC, animals, and wonderful textiles, colorful and intricately woven after two millennia. I’ve never seen so many old textiles, since usually they rot. Nearby on the square is a fine museum of Chilean history set in a rare old colonial building. There were portraits, furnishings, and paintings of battles and local history.
The busy subway here is the nicest I’ve ever seen, even in Moscow, although it’s smaller. It’s spotless, and filled with small bright colored tiles, sculptures in metal and ceramic, and museum displays. There is no graffiti at all, which seems a miracle. There are more city busses than I’ve ever seen, yellow herds of them in enormous batches, often old and spewing black fumes. Sometimes they churned past prospective customers, who waved frantically. Around the city’s neighborhoods runs the beltway, Amerigo Vespucci, on which you may drive north to Alaska.
Santiago was founded in 1541; Chile declared independence in 1810 after Bernardo O’Higgins ran off the Spaniards. French and American revolutions must have been examples, but the aristocrat-peasant philosophy of Spain continued in its colony. I‘ve often recalled the last line of Rule Brittannia: “Britons never ever will be slaves!” Spain’s interests were better suited to the wealthy keeping a strong foot on necks of the poor. The intransigence of the aristocrats caused O’Higgins’ resignation as president after a few years. There are a few old buildings left in town and a castle on top of the tall St. Lucia hill overlooks the city, but many have disappeared due to fire and earthquakes. New buildings, tall and sleek, give the city a modern look, and wide boulevards enjoy green leafy medians planted with trees and shrubs. Shops and supermarkets are as attractive. A spotless hypermarche near our hotel had 45 checkout lanes, and the meat and poultry counters went on nearly as far as Harrod’s! Mike kept exclaiming over the low price of fresh scallops and abalone, displayed on crushed ice.
Sixty miles west the cold Pacific flows up from the South Pole. We explored the coast, driving with Leo, our hired guide, past miles of wildflowers and California poppies coloring green acres golden. Wineries could be the Napa valley, but we toured only one, enormous Concha y Toro, where we got samples and tall glasses after peering into dark caves and ahh-ing at the beautiful home, built in the 1850’s, that began this enormous enterprise. It was the first winery placed on the Chilean Stock Exchange in 1994. Our small tour group had Japanese, South Africans, Americans, Aussies, and British imbibers and we went deep into the cave where the devil supposedly visited to keep watch on the wines. That was enough to stop thievery from locals.
We visited one of the three homes of Nobel poet Pablo Neruda on the Isla Negra, filled with his eclectic collections of shells, ancient sailing ship figureheads, and even a lifesize horse that required a room addition. The horse has ceramic friends nearby “to keep it company,” and the carved wood figureheads in the living room point toward the sea through huge glass windows, so they’ll feel as if they decorated sailing vessels. His wood statue of Jesus and Mary was carved as a copy of one he liked elsewhere. His blue glass pots are placed at seaside windows, and brown ones toward land “so they’d all be comfortable”. One desk began as a piece of driftwood, which he sat and awaited as the tide carried it in. He was then with his third wife, I think, a painter. He bought seashells with some of his Nobel money. Our English speaking guide had a familiar accent, and I inquired where she was from. Rochester, she said. Where in Rochester? Oh, you know it? Yes, quite well. Turns out that Doris Hamilton, now married to a Chilean returned home to retire, graduated from Nazareth College a year after me! I’ll send that news to the college paper. It’s impossible to buy English translations of Neruda here, since foreign books are so expensive: stores just don’t stock them.
At a seafood lunch nearby, I tried the local specialty, conger eel, a firm white fish deliciously sautéed with butter and capers. As the sea crashed over nearby rocks, I spotted a black creature atop one, with two little friends. A penguin! How lucky! I excitedly pointed it out to others in the restaurant, and soon left to take its picture. But somehow it was transmogrified into a black cormorant, drying its wings! I was foiled. The seacoast is beautiful, rocky and wild, with some sand beaches, but the Pacific temperature discourages swimmers.
Tiny dusty San Antonio is full of fishermen, and we walked docks, snapping photos and peering at thousands of crabs, shellfish, squid, octopus, and fish, many unfamiliar to us. People were casting lines from the cement pier near brightly painted but very worn wooden boats and piles of nets and crates. Huge sea lions lurked under the pier. There is poverty, but people seemed quite happy to point out all sorts of things to us. There are over 3000 miles of coastline in Chile, but only a small Navy that also acts as a Coast Guard.
Nearby Valparaiso was once the first stop for ships completing the arduous journey around the tip of South America, through the Magellan Straits. Today it’s the meeting place for Chile’s parliament. Once, thousands of strong deck hands loaded hundreds of ships. Today a few big cranes lift huge containers off trailer trucks onto ships longer than city blocks. Unemployment affects both pretty Victorian wooden architecture and empty warehouses. We visited a museum of natural history and the cathedral, both in the busy city center, but boarded up stores in other areas imply that affluence has moved on.
The town is home to the Chilean Navy. Their white stone museum sits on top of a grassy hill that we approached from an ancient funicular. I saw rails and grass through the worn wood planks under my feet. There are still many funiculars in the hilly town, and on a sunny spring Sunday afternoon the ice cream sellers and artists were out in force on the hilltop, with a fabulous view below of the round blue harbor. We toured the Navy museum, and saw a stained glass window incorporating Neil Armstrong, with his USA flag patch on his spacesuit shoulder. The naval battles and ship histories, with men prominent in them, were well displayed. Nearby are several upscale towns boasting elegant homes, modern apartment buildings, views of the sea, and lavish sailboats. Vendors along roadside sold sweets or crabs, waving plastic bags up and down to attract motorists. Small towns sell delicious corn pies with beef or chicken inside. Yum.
We visited the pottery-producing village of Pomaire, but couldn’t buy much due to luggage space. Rough wood plank shelves were packed with rows of jars and figures. We bought a small rainstick from a man in an outdoor booth in another village. A wedding was occurring in the red and white wooden church nearby, a star nailed onto its steeple. Dogs slept peaceably in the sun near unpaved side streets. Every merchant washed off the street outside his booth. Most shop windows were unpainted hinged wood panels, hooked open.
We came here to visit the new Santiago office of the Office of Naval Research, and to attend a physics meeting in Pucon, near Temuco. It’s a two hour plane ride south, plus a long van ride from the modern airport. There were fewer than 50 attendees, and the setting was on a high mountain lake. An enormous snow covered volcano looked down over us, except when clouds or fog covered its face. With the sun, it sparkled. There were chair lifts, closed for the season, on one side of the Villa Rica volcan, one of 200 volcanoes in Chile. The little town grew up around our hotel. It looked like a ski town in Utah or Colorado, with skis, snowshoes, and rafts piled out in front of small shops, and knitted hats, sweaters, and scarves for sale. It’s nearly impossible to buy lunch for over five dollars, cafeteria meals were filled us up at the Inn, and several guests raved over the twenty dollar massages.
The scenery was stunning, and baby lambs and calves played in green mountainsides. The hotel was just opening for the season, putting out umbrellas and tables, and the aging but graceful Gran Pucon Inn was very inexpensive, including a trip to the thermal hot springs one afternoon, plus rafting, hiking, and dancing lessons. One group hiked ten hours the day we arrived, and we trekked beneath the volcano in a lava tube with a hardy old guide. I would love to take more Latin dance classes! What fun! Our naval attaché Mani, an MIT submariner who grew up in The Dominican Republic, showed off his excellent Latin dance at the last night’s banquet. I’ve never spent an evening where every selection was a rhumba, samba, or the like. Beforehand, we were treated to a mariachi-style band and dancing by villagers in native costumes. (Mani’s sweet daughter is an accomplished musician who skipped trig to take calculus. She’s 13!)
The vans en route to the tours were filled with people discussing exactly what was meant between T 1 and T 2, or the power of x or things beyond my ken! Dinner tables too. Getting scientists into a remote environment to relax and network while delivering their papers worked well. People came from many backgrounds, even Russia, most working in American universities either permanently or temporarily.
Because of all the political unrest that has riven South America—and other Spanish heritage colonies with no middle class nor hope of one—the military has no background like ours for assisting research. There is distrust and suspicion: one merely has to recall the Disappeards, still missing with no clue of their whereabouts, under Pinochet’s tortures and murders. He took over after Salvador Allende’s Communist government oversaw 600% inflation and breadlines. Currently all seems politically stable, with a slightly left of center government and healthy growth. It certainly looks prosperous, but copper, a big export, is down. We tried boosting the liquor industry by frequently imbibing pisco sours, the national drink made with brandy and tasting like a whiskey sour. We drank excellent but inexpensive wines and local beer.
Everyone kisses once as a greeting, even teenagers, and men shake hands often. (Kiss both cheeks in London!) There’s a VAT, like England and France, gas is cheap, cars are regular size, and the flag is nearly like Texas’s, wide red and white stripe with a white star in a dark blue patch. Life expectancy is better than in the US. Many old buildings are restored. In the malls, little carts carry men who’ll wash your car in the parking lot while you shop. Stores are nice. Mike lunched with the Ambassador and presidents of local universities. Flights don’t run every day, which gave us a bit more time in Chile than we otherwise might have planned, but the Marriott was new and excellent, with a pool and exercise room, and we had a high city view. All firefighters, volunteers, can’t reach beyond the fifteenth floor, however.
We hopped over to Auckland, still on Lan Chile air, although our tickets read Qantas. Unfortunately, since the two airlines hadn’t co-oped long, none of the software systems meshed, and our departure involved hand searches and queues. The fact that personnel spoke Spanish—I know, it’s a Spanish speaking country!—wasn’t helpful in explaining delays, but by dawn we were admiring a brilliant sunrise over New Zealand’s navy and turquoise ocean and the Tasman sea. If you need a burger upon landing in the clean modern airport, Mickey D’s was there, open at 3 AM.
In four nights, we stayed at 3 B&B’s, which provided chocolates on the pillow, lavender ties around the soap and TP, lavish breakfasts, fine views, and wonderful value. One host was the chief of police Colwyn Shortland and his wife Kay. Over the beds hung wire circles with netting attached: this was for summer mosquitoes when windows were open. We drove past fantastic ocean vistas and green, ragged volcanic mountains and watched sailboats and sheep. Fewer than four million people live in an area the size of California. Three quarters live on the north island, mostly around Auckland, which reminded me of Seattle. It has a space needle, hills, a big university, art gallery and museum, ferries, a huge harbor, and coffee! And rush hour traffic.
The countryside continually amazed us with beauty and endless vistas. Everyone sails, from childhood on. The American dollar is twice New Zealand’s, so prices for us were low. We never got to see the America’s cup entries, but thousands of other sailboats were moored in harbors first visited by Captain Cook in 1769. We saw a double rainbow in a land of rainbows.
We were treated to fish and scallops in the back yard of the old police station in Russell, Bay of Islands. Our host Colwyn was the sole law presence. His white Victorian Gothic house, once a customs house, set just a few meters from lapping waters of the bay, and his second home on a hilltop was the B&B run by Kay, his gracious wife. His family, partly Maori, had been there for generations. We toured the small museums and harbor, saw dolphins from afar and lots of birds close up, and visited churches set up by Victorian missionaries with stern views on life. Zane Gray lived and fished nearby. We admired kauri trees, coped with Maori names, and imagined the delight of whalers coming into port for provisions and passionate nights. (Little Russell was known as the Hellhole of the Pacific!) We used bins marked “Be a tidy kiwi.” Try saying Tikipunga, Whangarei, Pohutukawa, or Ruakaka. Would you rather say “Motukokako” or “Hole in the Rock” for one of the 144 local islands?
Next, from the Smiths home, Te Manaaki, we went to a little wooden church, the oldest in New Zealand. Prayerbooks had Maroi alongside English. The few attendees were about 80, but Jean, a small barrel-shaded ordained minister in the congregation, assured me over coffee that the Baptists had an excellent children’s program and that’s where younger people went. The old gravestones provided interesting reading behind their white fence, marking many early deaths. Nearby is Pompallier, the first Marist mission, founded by French in 1838, outraging the Anglicans and Wesleyans. I once corresponded with Marists, interested in becoming a missionary sister, back when I believed in church dogma. All the smart women I knew were nuns!
In Auckland, we took a ferry to the University with many other commuters. I strolled around parks and the city art gallery, which had a show of Victorian paintings, during Mike’s meetings. I’d seen many of the same artists in London galleries. Auckland’s War Memorial Museum is a treasure trove of Maori art, packed with carved boats, spears, capes, tapestries, and stuffed critters. We hardly had time to view them all after touring an exhibition of an illustrious kiwi, Sir Edmund Hillary. Several artifacts from his 1953 Everest expedition were displayed: 14 climbers and 22 Sherpas lived for seven weeks on the highest mountain of the world, named “Mother Goddess of the Universe” by those close by. We hadn’t realized the incredible levels of organization and finance required, and the physical and psychological endurance.
The kiwi is in danger! It’s a nocturnal flightless bird, often attacked by feral dogs. There are no native land mammals in the nation (who knew these things??) and many of those introduced have proven to be pests. 60 million Australian possums are hunted, shot, and poisoned, but are very dissimilar to the American version. They have a piggy batlike snout and sharp teeth, and brown fur that is sold everywhere in scarves and slippers. It’s kind of patriotic to buy slippers, help eradicate possums. They eat thousands of pounds of tree leaves a night.
New Zealanders have deleted the short e and use I instead. They may have six sivvin toimes a week if they’re active folks. Yis, they sleep in bids, and eat jilly or vigitabes in ristaurants. The weekend we were there, a political speech warning of Asian immigration made headlines. There is pressure to get into such a delightful nation, but also a desire that immigrants adapt to the culture of their new country. Like Britain, there is no requirement to know English for citizenship. Without even a glimpse of the south island, we flew to Sydney and on to Adelaide.
It’s disconcerting to awaken to CNN’s live coverage of the close of the NYSE. It’s still yesterday for New York. Adelaide is, if Australia overlaid the US, about in New Orleans, and Melbourne is Tampa. Canberra, the capitol, is approximately Atlanta. I missed Sydney, a bit north, (Charleston-ish) and the Great Barrier Reef, Maine-ish. Next time!
Adelaide, to Sydney scoffers, is the “prettiest cemetery in Australia,” named after the English queen of William IV, brother of George IV. Her statue sits inside the town hall, used for concerts, and several statues of him and also Queen Victoria are around town. It’s a little like Lubbock, but prettier, with an ocean. To its sons, it is low-rise heaven, with 150 of the nation’s 200 vineyards nearby. Its rolling hills north of the city offer Tuscan vistas, they say, along the sea nearby. Everything is along the sea, since the interior of the country is desert, with Ayers Rock the huge pimple in the middle. There are fewer than 20 million Aussies, so the reason you may think there are more is that everyone, after all their school in the same city, departs for a few years to work abroad before returning home. Adelaide reminds us that not all the settlers were convicts! They have wide boulevards, some excellent colonial architecture, and great art galleries. We saw no integration of aboriginal people with others, and only a few of the natives, who didn’t appear to be doing well at all.
We loved the wide streets and waving palms amid plane trees and other greenery, and walked past parks and outdoor sculptures, past “the prettiest cricket ground in Australia” to the meeting hotel for acousticians. With the acousticians, we heard an organ concert, sampled wines, and visited a fine Art Gallery. I took an old wooden tram to the ocean. “Do not protrude limbs from tram,” said the sign, near “In the interest of public health, any passenger spitting on the cars will be ejected and prosecuted.” I passed countless brick bungalows in tidy fenced front yards, but the pretty beach was nearly deserted despite the sun. It was cold and windy at the end of the long pier. Near cafes and surf shops, the buzz of southern California was absent, maybe because it was a weekday.
After the meetings, with Mike not blown away by cutting edge science, we flew to Melbourne and were again delighted! What’s not to like? The drive from the airport reveals wide avenues, with a modern brilliant red and yellow steel ‘zipper’ sculpture unfolding along both sides of the road: colorful pieces against blue sky. There’s lots of outdoor art, and the river running through this large city (3 million) is full of tour boats and sculls, and its banks hold large stadiums: the Rod Laver tennis center, two cricket grounds, several parks, jogging paths, and flower gardens. Nearby are opera and theater areas, and the riverbanks on Sundays are lined with small green vendors’ tents. We now own a didgeridoo, handmade and carved with a snake and other symbols, and a CD of the artist David Roo Dryden and his son! It reaches my shoulder and weighs a lot. I love it. You blow hard into it, letting your lips nearly flap.
The Victorian churches in town are dwarfed by skyscrapers, sleek and imaginatively varied. Air conditioning works. Large cars, so unlike Europe, look like America, but a few horse carriages carry tourists and brides amid traffic. The population still seems extremely white, with lots of Orientals and a nice Chinatown with red shoji at either end, and good restaurants. Buskers abound, a free tram runs around downtown amid many trams and busses, and there are constantly people on the streets. Every third shop sells opals. We met with Peter Majumdar, our London friend who set up the new office.
On Saturday we drove for about 9 hours, exploring the coast, past refineries and small dusty towns to the first dedicated surfing beach in the nation. The water was turquoise against golden sand, with green eucalyptus and red soil. We saw wild cockatiels and parrots, and huge magpies in black and white patterns unlike those in Europe. We saw not one ‘roo, but spied a hedgehog- like creature, a brown echidna wandering in the road.
The fantastic Centre for the Moving Image is part of Federation Plaza. It’s a treasure trove on 4 levels of films, with a monstrous lending library and 120 screens which may be going simultaneously. We watched some of Cocteau’s black and white Orphee and some colorful Aboriginal films, and strolled in and out of small dark rooms. Many had queues, such as James Turrell, and we watched a 1968 early video synthesis of art and music by Whitney when he was at IBM.
Federation Plaza is built over an entire railroad yard and will accommodate 15,000 people in the open air. Its architecture, covering a city block, owes a lot to Bilbao and Bucky Fuller, with countless ins and outs, weird angles and curves, varying materials—glass, sandstone, steel and zinc triangles--and élan. Several buildings are for business, like public TV and Radio. Air conditioning is state of the art and energy efficient. The Yarra River runs alongside, and trains and trams are close. It’s fun! Thousands of locals and tourists wandered around the many levels and also visited the Australian owned bookstore, glass shop, coffee shops, (no franchises here!) and new Art Gallery. Only four rooms of 20 were open, vast white spaces with good lighting and filled with sculptures and paintings by Aborigines. It will present art from the colonial period to contemporary times. There is almost nothing old in this country, so most pieces were done in the last 20 years. Before that, probably nothing of these tribes was seen as worth having.
The Federation, 1901, is when the 6 states came together under one government and started Australia as a nation, rather than a group of colonies separately ruled by England. The futuristic Federation Square was dogged by cost overruns and controversy. I think it’s fantastic. The US dollar is twice the NZ or Australian dollar, so everything costs half. What a change from London, where it costs twice! TV here is awful, with poor presentation and lots of imported programs: Simpsons, M*A*S*H, Friends, and the like. Mike met some university people with the Ambassador for lunch; American Studies folk believe Australia is quite dependent culturally on America without understanding it.
Mike flew to Canberra for a meeting with Embassy staff. He says it’s interesting in a smaller country that people actually know each other. They’ve been to school together or dated each other’s cousins. The Australian ambassador was W’s co-owner of the Rangers, and, like the Chilean ambassador, a UT law school grad. A Pilates class at the hotel showed me how out of shape I’ve gotten, and I await some routine back in London.
We spent the last day at the wonderful modern natural history museum in Melbourne, where I saw my only kangaroo, stuffed, with his cousins, the wallabies and other native species. The touring school children in Australia and New Zealand, as in England, wear uniforms. Just before we left, the Prime Minister issued a warning that within the next two months, Al Queda may possibly harm Australia.
Our journey ended in Singapore, a city-nation of three million on an island small enough to drive from south to north in about a half hour. The city, once run by the English and divided into ethnic areas, was thrown out of Malaya because of ethnic differences in 1965. It’s a hub of commerce, just north of the equator. It’s modern and thriving, with interesting areas of little India, Chinatown, and a fantastic zoo. Most people live in high-rise buildings, and business and residential thrusts dwarf the tiny low section of the city from colonial times. The smallest Asian nation, a financial center, it prizes education and has one of the world’s highest computer ownership ratios.
We stayed near the Embassy in the Regent, a gorgeous place, in a city full of fine hotels and tall modern buildings. Fresh fruits were in dishes at all elevators, and fresh orchids in the halls and rooms. Darren, the ONR contact there, somehow upgraded us to a suite, still at government rates! As in the rest of the world, tourism is down and watchfulness up. Taxi drivers are working long hours and some waiters’ families must share the same despair as displaced computer tecchies in Austin.
We arrived in the wee hours and Darren drove us drove past enormous shipping areas of the harbor, with more loading cranes than I’ve ever seen. There are plants in every street and park; on one drive we saw about a hundred small monkeys along the road, in families. Moms nursed babies, the little ones played on tree branches, and dads bared their teeth at us. The birds are all unfamiliar. The malls and streets were decorated with Santa and angels. Palm trees are wrapped with strings of lights. I saw no crèche scenes, in this city of Christian, Buddhist and Hindu believers, nor in any places we visited on this trip.
We took the zoo’s Night Safari. Although the free show with live animals was too full for us, we took the tram and walking paths and were amazed at all the nocturnal activity we saw! A giant tapir walked next to us, and various exotic deer. We watched a pride of lions roar back and forth, watched three porcupines, quills up to the max, scuffling around between a group of bears, looking for a morsel and secure in not being one. We watched tigers and large cats, an owl, and walked through a cage of huge bats hanging literally inches from our noses, forcing us to duck. They looked frightful in the shadows, and probably worse in broad daylight, but stayed put.
I had heard about Raffles, and imagined it to be one place. Instead, the name is everywhere in the city, after Sir Stamford Raffles, the city’s founder. A large white hotel with 103 suites and many shops were associated with the name. The hotel opened as Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, and I visited in the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Golden jubilee in 2002, over a century later. In 1987, it was refurbished and declared a National Monument, reopening in 1991.
The bar, where the Singapore Sling was born, has spade-shaped woven fans slowly pushing the air above wicker chairs and sofas. Bowls of peanuts sit on every table and shells are tossed onto the floor. The walls are mahogany; it’s surrounded by spacious verandas, and rooms have oriental rugs, fans in the 14 foot ceilings, and antiques. Downstairs are palm gardens, bars, a billiard room with two gigantic old tables, and hordes of staff, eager to please. Supposedly the grounds feature over 50,000 plants. We ate in a wooden booth in Doc Cheng’s, named after a local noted for alcohol capacity and surgical expertise, often simultaneously. Prices reflect the place’s fame.
In 1942, the Japanese army overran the island and, as in the Phillipines, tortured and murdered the locals. We visited the Singapore Art Museum display of drawings from the period, where babies were bayoneted and old people were sadistically exposed to the relentless sun for days on end, reducing their skin to peeling leather. Tortures with sharp pencils, boiling water, flogging, and decapitation were some methods responsible for 75,000 Chinese deaths during the occupation. English is the official language.
We walked to the Orchid Garden. I don’t sweat much, as a rule, but my shirt was damp, front and back, and soon I was mopping my face. It isn’t even the hottest time of the year. After the stunning ponds, waterfalls, fountains and gardens, there were many “retail opportunities” which are hard to resist. Prices are low, service high. We took a city tour and a boat ride, out the river past the merlion, the rearing half fish, half lion that is the city’s symbol. On the day before Singapore’s famous million-dollar duck race, we sat next to a guy who turned out to be a London UT alum. In human resources for an oil company, he was headed to Kuala Lampur. In all his trips to Singapore, this was his first day off. Mike’s too, since I was along.
In Chinatown and Little India, we only scratched the surface of shops and restaurants. I’m sure that everything in the world is for sale there, and we bought Patrick a digital camera for $130 US less than from another shop where I was sure the man was ready to throw in his firstborn. “Our” shop was one embassy people often use, and had piles of refrigerators, blenders, toothbrushes, and cameras piled up in brown boxes all over the small shop. They seemed to know everything about every appliance. There was no attempt to make visually pleasant arrangements, just to shoehorn in as much merchandise as possible and then to sell it!
There were few smokers in any places we visited, since most airlines and airports are smoke free. We didn’t risk caning or jail by chewing gum in Singapore, and noted scarcely a cigarette butt to be found even on busiest streets. London hoses streets with steam and hot water to remove gum.
I read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s biography and am reading a bio of Capt. Cook. I did NYTimes crosswords. Edna was the petite bohemian darling of the 20’s and 30’s, with tumultuous love and family issues. Capt. Cook was the young man who circled the globe three times, murdered in Hawaii on his last exploration. We saw plastic pumpkins for Hallowe’en and candles for the Day of the Dead, but couldn’t vote back home, since our absentee ballots arrived too late to be returned. I brought paints along, seldom used them, but took photographs. I’m so pleased to have seen all that this trip covered, even more than ancient kings saw, before jet travel.
The trip home was long. For 14 hours in economy, in the center row with 4 abreast, a 3 year old sat next to Mike. Qantas doesn’t allow early seat selection. Our tickets said BA, but that means nothing, with airline code sharing. The deserts and mountains coming home were worth hanging over the rear windows for, however. We crossed miles of India, southern Russia and Afghanistan: brown, beige, bone, yellow brown, red brown, umber, ochre, and more brown. The highest mountains were snow covered, and there was no traffic on the few roads. A few tiny villages and walled plots made me grateful not to be a woman living with so few choices.
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