Reflecting on Anthony Bourdain’s Death

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks you: it breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you.” Anthony Bourdain.

When I heard that Anthony Bourdain had taken his life, for one brief moment my heart stopped. Envied by both travellers and would be travellers alike, he had an amazing ability to gain an understanding of the many countries he visited. His love of all kinds of food and his talent for cooking it in five-star restaurants before he gained his fame as a ‘tell it as it is’ travel reporter led to an impressive lifestyle envied by those who wanted the kind of freedom that such a profession can give. The intensity of my shock at the news of his suicide took me by surprise. How could he of all people commit such a sad and selfish act when at the top of a flourishing career?

Although I envied his job and the finesse with which he handled it, I was never one of his avid fans. There was no question that he was a powerful interviewer and showed an honesty and humbleness which is rare in celebrities and that impressed me.  However, call me judgemental or plain old-fashioned, but his many tattoos bothered me. What was he trying to say I wondered? I wonder this about all the young travellers I see with bodies covered in them? I know that tattoos are meant to portray something personal about those wearing them, such as a love affair gone sour, a particular beef against the world, or to draw attention to a personal philosophy or cause, but aren’t they also an indication or sign that the person sporting them doesn’t really respect or like his body or what’s inside it? To me it speaks of some kind of self mutilation.Was this his way of unknowingly portraying an inner disconnect of something vital missing in his seemingly exciting life of freedom?

I also admired Bourdain’s wonderful way with words, hence, the above quotation which appeared in our Chronicle Herald the day after his death. It so vividly sums up the good and bad aspects of travelling alone. The amount of travel I have done is a drop in the bucket compared to what he put in. Nevertheless, I totally agree with what it can be and apparently was for him. It can be a blessing as well as a curse. The freedom which it allows has to be the top draw for any traveller who endeavours to do it, but there is invariably a price tag attached to such freedom.

Bourdain had an eleven year daughter and a wife… for awhile…apparently they had separated. He was totally responsible for pulling together his team of writers, photographers, and all the other bodies needed to carry out his travels to exotic places around the world. This effort was from all reports on a modest budget. It’s not surprising that this would eventually take a toll on his family. Those closest to him noticed that although he appeared to be happy right up until a few days before his death, he did look very tired. At the age of 61 perhaps he saw what was ahead and decided to end it before it got the best of him. We will never know, but the one thing I do know is that if you have a family or a spouse, travelling on your own doesn’t provide a firm foundation for a close relationship…..unless you can take the family with you. This is happening in some rare cases with young, mostly European couples. I think we will see more of this in the future as our world becomes more dependent on technology and young people are forced to find more rewarding work in a foreign country, or to escape from the rat race in their own countries. They could also be forced to move because of climate change and the cost of living in their native countries. There are a myriad of reasons and the opportunities for doing this are certainly there. The nomadic lifestyle is appealing to a growing group of those who want that kind of freedom.

I totally agree that the best education you could ever get is to travel by yourself. There is no doubt in my mind about that. As Bourdain said: “The journey changes you.” That is certainly true for me. Let me name the ways:

  1. It has increased my self-confidence.
  2. It has helped me to find the value in reaching out to others.
  3. It has helped me to be more resilient.
  4. It has helped me understand the world through the culture and the customs of the countries I have visited.
  5. It has helped me open my eyes and heart to see that although we may be different on the outside, we are not so on the inside. We are all very much connected.

Anthony Bourdain found his passion in the work he was doing which garnered him fame and recognition and all the other benefits that came with that. The missing link was his inability to overcome his demons and realise that the only way he could have conquered them would have been to face them. He needed to slow up and take time to do that. Unfortunately, he did not, resulting in leaving behind a young daughter who will have to deal with his decision. He will definitely be missed by all those who knew him, but we all  know who will miss him the most… and this is the greatest tragedy of all.

If you would like to find out more about my thoughts on travelling on my own as a senior woman you can take a look at the following posts:

Overcoming the Fear of Travelling Solo as a Senior

How Our Changing World Is Affecting Our Travel

Travelling Solo or Not?

My tribute to Anthony Bourdain’s perpective on travel with food as the key for unlocking his road to fame, is the gallery of pictures I have taken over the years in my travels to Viet Nam (his favourite country), Thailand, Cambodia, and Myranmar (Burma), Morocco and Italy. Click on the picture for the caption.

 

 

Celebrating Tea and Queen Victoria

Only in Canada do we look forward to that third weekend in May when we are gifted with a long weekend. Why is that, you might wonder? Is it because after a harsh Canadian winter, we can look forward to summer which is just around the corner, knowing we can finally get outside to clean up winter’s aftermath making room for our transplants, or to open up the cottage? This might be true for most of us these days, but for some it’s an opportunity to celebrate the birth of Queen Victoria who had the distinction of being Britain’s longest reigning monarch… a title she can no longer proclaim since Elizabeth 11 took it over in 2015.

When Victoria died in 1901, our then government decided to make the third Monday in May a statutory holiday to commemorate her birth on May 24, 1819, causing many a raised eyebrow in Britain as well as our neighbour to the south that we should be setting aside this day to celebrate a Queen who was to all extent and purposes a temperamental and dour, old woman who always wore black. However, as we have found out, appearances can be deceiving.

Thanks to her talent and love for writing, we have discovered that Victoria was the exact opposite of that stern image implanted in our brains by our history books and our great grandparents. Present day historians claim that her daily dairies were enough to fill over 700 books beginning with her childhood until her death in 1901. Through them, we have learned that she was a passionate and strong woman who refused to bow to the strict social norms of her time. She not only had a firm grip on who she was as a person, but also on the country she ruled as well as the country she most loved…Germany.

After all, her beloved husband, Albert, was a German and strong personality in his own right who came into her life at the tender age of 19 when she was about to take over the daunting task of Queen. He fulfilled not only the role of her lover, but also provided a strong father figure for her. He was the pillar of strength she needed as she gave birth to their nine children while struggling to keep control of the world’s largest Empire.

Our interest in Victoria has increased over recent years as her descendants have gradually released some of what she wrote. We are learning that this woman had another side which went totally against the acceptable customs of her day especially when it came to her subsequent relationships with men after Albert’s early death. Yes, she suffered from depression which explained her long period of mourning. She never discarded the black dresses, but she refused to stop having fun and being herself when she met a man who understood her, such as her servant John Brown, a rough and ready  Scot who adored her. The same was true for Disraeli one of her Prime Ministers.

Even in her final years after receiving the title of Empress of India, she refused to travel there insisting that India come to her. As a result, a young servant with a wife and mother-in-law arrived to carry out the task of teaching Victoria every thing there was to know about his country Thus, began another close relationship for this woman with an old body at 84 who still had a young heart.

Victoria’s personal life was certainly not a boring one. However, it was a source of concern for her family and many of those who worked with and under here as she fought to lead her Empire through the vagaries of the world at that time. As a head of state and ruler of the vast British Empire, we know she survived numerous attempts to assassinate her. We also know that she really came into her own after Albert’s death becoming extremely popular with her public towards the end of her reign. During her 63 years on the throne, Britain experienced tremendous growth in technology, industry and communication. Underground rail systems, bridges, and roads were built everywhere in attempts to unite the country. Judging by the crowds who came out to see her in her later years, it appears she had indeed matured and finally won her battle to take control without Albert’s influence.

Learning about Victoria as a person has made Victoria Day for me just a little more interesting. What started as a day to have a parade and some fireworks, morphing into a time to clean up the yard and plant some flowers to welcome summer has now  brought us time to reflect on the personal journey of a woman with two very distinct sides to her personality during a time of change in matters of morality and economic growth throughout her vast Empire.

For my Victoria Day Weekend this year, I had the opportunity to do something different: I was asked to be a greeter for the guests who attended a Victorian Tea and Talk at the Lower Granville Hall. Under the capable leadership of Medea and Alan Holtz, new comers to the community of Port Royal, and some hard-working ladies with much experience in holding dinners and teas to raise funds for their hall, this successful tea did a great job of commemorating the Queen’s birthday. What better way to raise some much-needed money for our hall and the Annapolis Heritage Society who will be using our donation to help fix and paint the exteriors of two light houses: the one in Port Royal and the other in Victoria Beach.

Medea and Alan Holtz

Every effort was made to treat all those who attended this fundraiser an authentic Victorian Tea. Not only did the servers don Victorian dresses, headgear, and gloves, but had to walk carefully to avoid tripping on their long skirts. These little touches along with soft parlour music lent an atmosphere of calm and gentility much appreciated by the guests causing some to linger longer than planned.

Susan MacGregor

Me, the Greeter

The beautiful table settings, the tea served in silver pots, and the dainty sandwiches and sweets were the main attraction. However, the star of the show had to be the peaches! Why peaches? Well apparently Victoria, when introduced to them on a visit to Italy, fell madly in love with them and every year after that insisted that some be shipped to her in England. Unfortunately, peaches aren’t in season on Victoria Day in Nova Scotia. Instead of serving imports the gals made their own life-like peaches from a secret recipe using ordinary cookie dough.

To keep our guests amused a trivia quiz about Victoria’s life as well as the Royals today…especially since this was the day of Harry and Megan’s wedding…was on each table to provide fun and learning for all. What a great way to pull people together.

Our special guest speaker, Barry Moody, a noted local historian, gave an insightful talk on how tea became the favourite drink of the British, and the influence that had on the country’s social norms and economy. Did you know that the first tea was offered in 1658 at a London coffee-house? From there it became the beverage of choice at the Royal Court. It then quickly became an important social occasion giving birth to our famous ‘afternoon teas’. You may have heard of the term ‘high tea’ which was customarily tea served with a meal. With the advent of such social customs came opportunities for the East India Company to import more tea from China. It also provided opportunities for business minded entrepreneurs to start manufacturing such tea essentials as porcelain tea cups and saucers, teapots and even mustache mugs. Barry went on to say that artifacts related to tea drinking have shown up at Melanson’s Settlement, a Historical Site in Granville Beach. He admitted not much else is known about how the ritual of drinking tea influenced the Port Royal area, but noted that it was the French who have given us proof that it existed here in some form. I suspect it was also a popular past time with the Scottish and English Loyalists who settled here. In my own experience, my maternal grandmother was a big fan of ‘afternoon teas’. After my grandfather died, she moved from Halifax to a small farm in Seabright, where she hosted teas every Sunday afternoon for all her friends. Petit fours, shortbreads, Scottish scones made on a griddle, oatcakes with homemade jam were the lure making “Georgie’s” teas very popular.

Like most things today, our rituals and customs are being challenged by the changes occurring in our lifestyles. Tea drinking is losing some of its allure to the rise in our coffee culture. There are still those who prefer their tea because it has less caffeine or none at all if you consider sipping herbal teas possibly for medicinal purposes. Or, it might just be a matter of personal taste. Whatever the reason, our guests and those who organized this event were left with an experience that left us satisfied and wiser about the influence of tea on the British Empire and the Queen who reigned. I am happy to have been involved in this ‘tea’ event which was a hit with all those who attended. Without a doubt, this will become a yearly event on Victoria Day. The Port Royal gals are already looking ahead to next year and planning for it to be held on Monday instead of Saturday.

Kamille and Jeff Langstroff

 

Heading North to Cairns

Heading North to Cairns

Why do you suppose that Cairns, pronounced Caans by the Aussies , attracts more tourists than ever before? With a population today of about 160,000 she has grown from a sleepy, laid back town to a city of night markets, a modern mall, souvenir shops, restaurants, and an active bar scene in just a few decades. Without question she has become Australia’s major resort town. In fact, she is often likened to Florida! Located in the far North of Queensland, she has two great assets: a tropical climate and home to one of the seven natural wonders of the world… the Great Barrier Reef. With 3,000 reefs and 900 islands stretching for 2,600 kilometers along the northern coast, this coral reef was designated as a World Heritage site in 1981. Ever since, Cairns has been experiencing phenomenal growth.

The promenade along the harbour in Cairns.

The harbour.

Northern Queensland is the only part of Australia that is green all year long. It’s tropical climate gives it two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season is anywhere from December to May when the area will most likely experience torrential downpours, cyclones, and high humidity. The dry season will last anywhere from June to November where there will still be some rain with more sun and less humidity.

When you fly to Cairns from Alice Springs as I did, you can’t help but marvel at the green carpet of forest and the blue water which suddenly replaces the barren expanse of Central Australia. Cairns sits in the midst of a tropical rain forest, and if you haven’t guessed by now she is the main jumping off place for those who want to visit the Great Barrier Reef.

One of many ships heading for the Great Barrier Reef.

The weather and the time of year precipitated a dramatic change of plan for my visit to Cairns. My lack of research beforehand and poor timing which was out of my control were the reasons. Torrential rains and cyclones are the main items on the weather menu for April in Cairns and the north. My first night there it poured rain for over twelve hours causing the wash out of some significant bridges and roads. I  heard before I ever got there that the area had been suffering from more than the usual amount of flooding while the rest of the country seemed to be in a severe drought, especially in the south. However, since Aussies take weather in their stride, unlike us Canadians where it’s often the main topic of conversation, they all assured me that it was not a problem. Nope the Aussies aren’t going to let bad weather interfere with their plans especially cruises and day trips to the Reef. This really isn’t so surprising since this is the main focus and livelihood for many people in Cairns  and the season for cyclones is a long one from December to May.

For two days after my arrival while waiting for the weather to clear, I had an ongoing debate with myself on whether I should even attempt to sign up for a trip to see this world’s wonder. Hadn’t I experienced the same predicament in Ecuador three years ago when I ran into bad weather in March forcing me to abandon the idea of even visiting what is known as the poor man’s Galapagos let alone the Galapagos itself. But I digress. By the second day, although it did start to clear,  the forecast kept changing depending on whom I talked to. I had only five days to play around with. My budget was taking a beating from the high cost of everything, especially tours to World Heritage sites. The last thing I wanted to do was waste my money.  On the one hand, I knew this would be my one and only opportunity to see the Outer Reef, but….and here lay my dilemma. First, there was the risk of even seeing anything since the waters were all churned up from the heavy rains. Second, there was the strong possibility of seasickness… my sea legs are wobbly at best. In fact, all testimonials indicated that before the tours even got underway, seasick pills were handed out for free to keep the tourists from messing up their vessels. Third, I have never been a raving success at snorkelling. Just getting dressed in the necessary gear is a challenge for me. Once I get it all on and plunge into the water, my mask insists on filling up with water causing panic because surely I am going to drown. Thus, the joy of seeing what lives beneath the sea is soon forgotten as I do battle with my snorkel. In the end, these three things, along with the cost, could not convince me that I should sign up for one of those expensive trips.

I had hoped I could master any previous problems I had with snorkelling so I put Cairns on my travel itinerary. After all, how could I go all the way to Australia and not go out to see the Great Barrier Reef? Well as I quickly found out there were other alternatives for me to consider which would be less expensive and not so intimidating. So instead, I opted to take a tour to Fitzroy Island situated  on the fringe of the Outer Reef meaning it was a shorter boat ride and less chance of getting seasick. Great. Moreover, once there I was free to roam around and choose to do whatever I wanted to do. I could even snorkel if I wanted to. There were trails leading to a secret garden in the rain forest and birds to see. There were at least two beaches. I could sign up to see the coral, sea turtles, and tropical fish on the glass bottomed boat, and to top it all off, I would get a delicious picnic lunch. To make this day complete the weather turned out to be almost perfect and the sea was calm. Although fleeting, the thought did occur that perhaps I should have taken the Outer Reef tour after all.

Fitzroy Island

Cathedral tree in the Secret Garden.

Nudy Beach.

Where is the sand? This is all coral.

Somewhere down there is a sea turtle.

Ran into this white cockatoo on one of the trails.

The unsettled weather prevented me from taking in another popular tourist attraction not far from Cairns which I had hoped to do: a trip to the village of Kuranda up a steep ascent into the rain forest on the historic Kuranda Railway. However, part of the rail line had been washed out by the rains. I considered taking  a bus up there, but with the Easter weekend also posing problems with bus schedules that was impossible. No, it simply wasn’t meant to be. Therefore, I missed taking the scenic train ride as well as the option to also take the Cable Car on the way back or to, depending on your first choice. A friend told me how she had saved herself some money by doing the trip on her own by taking either the train or cable car going up and the bus coming down. We agreed that where possible it’s often best to forget the tour which not only costs so much more, but also crams in too much to see in too little time.  Kuranda also offers parks, such as the Tjapukai Aboriginal Park where you can learn about the Djabugay people with dance performances, didgeridoo lessons, talks on natural medicines, and art demonstrations. Then there is a zoo, the Koala Gardens, where only Australian animals are featured, and Birdland Park where the almost extinct cassowary can be found. With so many possibilities for sites to visit and things to do, I would have needed more than a day to do it justice.

The didgeradoo.

Depending how you look at it, this trip could be considered a lost cause because I wasn’t able to see the two most important sites that Cairns is noted for. However, the way I look at it all is that at least I got to see and experience some of it which is always better than none. I also gained some valuable knowledge, not just about Northern Australia, but myself. Southern Aussies will tell you that they sure are different up there in the north. To quote a friend of the hilarious Bill Bryson* who has written two insightful books on Australia:

“They are crazy up there. Madder than cut snakes. You’ll like it up there.”

And, I did like it up there in spite of my setbacks. I don’t have any regrets for going and what I missed. The people were friendly and I didn’t meet any snakes. But as I said, I learned something about myself, too… I should forget the idea of becoming a snorkeler…time to accept my limits. I love being near the ocean but don’t put me in it. I’ll stay on the land and look at the sea from afar.

*Travel writer, Bill Bryson, says Australia is his favourite country. He has written two books on it and the people who live there: In a Sunburned Country and Down Under. I love his sense of humour and recommend these and any others he has written.

A traditional Queensland style home.

Stately building in downtown Cairns.

 

Final Stop – Sydney, Australia

Final Stop – Sydney, Australia

By the time I arrived in Sydney, I had covered half the continent by air in two weeks…not much time to see all I had hoped but probably enough to learn something about its people and how this strange land, its history, and its location have helped shape people into what they are today. This is especially true for their cities considering that about 80% of the Australian population live in them with most located along the coast.

Before I landed in Sydney, I got the impression from various people I know who have been there as well as Aussies, themselves, that there was no reason to stay for long as it was just another big city. I would be wasting my valuable time there when there are so many other gorgeous places to visit. True enough but I was finding it tiring and expensive moving around this vast country so was happy to stay ‘put’ there for the week.

My first view of Sydney.

Getting closer.

And yes, Sydney is a huge city of over five million people when you consider the entire area composed of the centre or CBD and all its precincts….but then so is Melbourne. Yet, I never once heard any disparaging remarks about that city. On the contrary,  the reaction of most who had visited Melbourne was that it was their favourite city. Perhaps this is an example of the rivalry that has and still does exist between these two dynamic cities.

A look at the city from the ferry.

My other reason for choosing to stay longer than most was because not only was it my place of departure, but also because I had friends I wanted to visit near Bathurst, a town about 200 km southwest by train. I would have time to actually see and get to know Sydney as well as have a quick visit to the Blue Mountains which were on my list of ‘must sees’.

Fortunately, my Sydney arrival was a breeze compared to the experience I had in Melbourne. To learn more about this you can go to my recent post First Stop – Melbourne, Australia. The Airbnb place where I had booked a room was located in the precinct of Leichhardt, Sidney’s “Little Italy” which was about a half hour from the CBD (Central Business District) by bus and train. The check- in procedure was similar to what I had with Little St. Kilda in Melbourne. However, this time I had clear and copious instructions from the owner on how to get there and most importantly how to get in and find my room. The whole thing went without a hitch, and the next day the owner came to introduce himself and answer any questions I had. This made my stay so much more enjoyable knowing I had an actual person I could call upon if need be.

With this hassle free arrival, I was ready to tackle Sydney and its sights the next day. After perusing all the brochures I had picked up at the Information Centre in Central Station the previous day and taking the time to read up on the expert advice of my Fodor’s guide-book, I decided the best place to start would be at the Circular Quay train stop which serves as a link for ferries, trams, and buses. Faced with a multitude of kiosks selling sight-seeing tours, I decided to not waste any time looking around but just go ahead and book the Zoo and Eco tour with Manly Fast Ferries. This family owned company offered me the two things I wanted to do: a trip to the Taronga Zoo which requires a ferry ride to reach and a two-hour tour of Sidney Harbour with commentary which would give me a birds’ eye view of the whole harbour area. Since the tour was good for 24 hours, I was able to do the zoo on the first day and leave the harbour tour for the following day.

The iconic Opera House from the ferry on my way to the Taronga Zoo.

The other Sydney icon-the Harbour Bridge.

This turned out beautifully because the cruise stopped at several places with the option to disembark at whichever one you wanted and stay for as long as the last ferry of the day departed. I am usually against taking a tour but in this case with the amount of flexibility and freedom to set my own pace, it fit my needs at the affordable price of  $59.

The Taronga Zoo covers a huge unspoiled piece of land built on the side of a mountain overlooking Sydney Harbour with an impressive view of the Opera House and Harbour bridge. All the animals are housed in a large space providing the kind of habitat they need to be happy. I could have taken a cable car up to the top (included in the price) but because of the long line-up….it was Easter Monday so many families with children were there… I opted to walk which allowed me to go at my own pace, stopping along the way to view the animals of Australia, such as the kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, the platypus, echinadas, and emus. I saw them all including the shy koalas, or at least one of them, who deigned to wake up long enough for me to capture him on camera. Now I could have had my picture taken with a koala  who has the special task of staying awake to have his picture taken by those who like to fork over $25 for such a privilege, but I was not that desperate to cuddle such a cute animal for that price.

You all know this guy.

Not another ‘roo but a wallaby – smaller with a pointed face.

What else is there for a koala to do in the day time?

That dark spot is a nearly extinct platypus.

The following morning I was up early for my two-hour cruise at 9:30. I say early because I had to have breakfast as well as leave at least a half hour to get there from my place which entailed a bus ride to Central Station and then the train from there to Circular Quay. I have to say that Sydney’s transit system was much easier to navigate than Melbourne’s. I bought an Opal card which worked the same way as the Miki but in general their whole system was better laid out and organized with people who knew how to help. In retrospect, I think Melbourne’s is in a bit of a mess because it’s been experiencing monumental growth of late. One Aussie told me that they have over 1500 people a week now coming to live there, a fact which was later backed up by some research I did.

Sydney’s Central Station-the hub to everywhere.

After an hour of cruising, I decided to spend the rest of my day in Manly and even though it was overcast and threatening rain, I still wanted to see why Manly Beach was considered by many as one of the best beaches around. Who knew that Sydney and its environs has over 100 beaches from small, maybe just a few feet, to very large up to more than several kilometres long? Fodor’s claims they have over 30. Whoever is correct, there is no denying that Sydney has its pick of fine beaches.

One of many stately homes on the harbour.

I loved Manly, a separate village and perfect seaside resort with gorgeous beaches.  It’s considered as the birthplace of surfing in Australia. Manly Beach is just minutes from the centre, linked by the Corso, a wide boulevard lined with numerous cafes, restaurants, and shops, leading to the beach promenade flanked by lovely homes and stately Norfolk pine trees. The promenade eventually hooks onto some excellent trails to the north where there is a National Park and views to die for. To me Manly looked like the perfect place for the well-heeled and those looking for a slower more laid back style of living.

Manly Beach before the sun appeared.

After the sun appeared.

My one regret…. not bringing my bathing suit! When I left so early in the morning, it was cool and looked like rain. Moreover, I wasn’t too clear on how the cruise worked or where it was taking me. It was a last-minute decision to get off at Manly. Less than an hour later, the sun came out as I was walking the Cabbage Tree Bay trail a short hike along the coast. Later, over a big all-day breakfast special of egg and bacon on a black bun with a rocket salad, I had regained my energy so decided to go for the longer trail that would take me to North Head at the northernmost part of the peninsula where Manly is located offering some more of Sidney Harbour’s gorgeous views. In my eagerness, I really overdid it because it took longer than I thought leaving me to have to rush back to the wharf to catch one of the last ferries going back to Circular Quay…my only way back unless I had a car. There was no bus service as far as I could fathom from those I asked. Despite this one blip in my lovely day, I was totally satisfied with the tour and the choices I had made.

Views from the look off on the North Head Trail.

The Harbour Bridge at sunset.

The next day I decided to make an easier one with little walking so didn’t go back to the CBD or anywhere near a train or bus. I stayed right where I was in “Little Italy” drinking cappuccinos, people watching, and reading in a nearby park in preparation for the next day when I would be travelling by train to the town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. I am saving my report on this trip for my next post.

After returning from the Blue Mountains, I spent my remaining day and a half in the CBD exploring the downtown putting me in the midst of the business and high-end shopping area. I wanted to see this part of Sydney where some of its most beautiful old buildings are located, namely the Queen Victoria Building built in 1898. It’s noted for its architectural beauty which sports a huge clock tower in the centre. Today it’s a classy shopping arcade with a host of high-end shops and cafes. Someone recommended I take in a High Tea while there but after seeing the price, I declined and settled for the Aussie version of an iced coffee made with milk, coffee, of course, ice cream all topped with a good dollop of whipped cream. Yummy!

Sydney’s business and shopping area with stately buildings.

Since Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden wasn’t too far away, I took my remaining time to walk around taking in The Calyx, a world- class exhibition featuring a colourful display of how pollination and colour play such an important role in the world of plants. I could have spent all day there because there was so much to see as there seems to be in all the botanic gardens in the places I visited in Australia. It really is a country of varied flora which they showcase so well. Finally, the fact that from the gardens you can get another fantastic view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge is another reason to visit.

So colourful.

Interesting. Did you know?

My last day in Sydney presented me with a difficult choice. There was so much I hadn’t seen. In the end, I chose to make my way out to Bondi Beach, which is the one that everyone goes to. You simply don’t go to Sydney and not go to Bondi even though there are more than a hundred to choose from. Why Bondi? Well for starters, it’s probably one of the largest and has everything that beach goers want in the way of sand, surf, lots of places to eat, close enough to the city and easily accessible by bus, and of course, the people who flock there in droves giving it a carnival type of atmosphere. People draw people, and especially in Australia where biggest and best seem to be king. I would loved to have had the time to walk along the coast to Bronte Beach which sounded so much nicer but… At least I was able to put on my bathing suit and get half way into the water. It was very rough and unless you are a surfer or strong swimmer, you had to be careful not to get swamped. Even though it was a Tuesday when you would think that everyone would be at work or in school, such wasn’t the case. The part at the other end of the beach (it’s about 7 kms. long) had the flags up telling bathers there was less current, but it was so crowded I didn’t want to go near it. There were no lifeguards on duty since it was off-season.

I left Sydney with a good feeling and was glad I spent as much time as I did there. It really does have so much to boast about, and I can understand why Melbourne is striving to match it. They could very well do that too except they are missing one important component which they will never have….the most beautiful harbour in the world. Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet to arrive in Sydney in 1788 said it best: “Here lies the finest harbour in the world.”

First Stop – Melbourne, Australia

Australia is a traveller’s dream. It is a modern country with a fully functioning democracy, English-speaking, with a warm and sunny climate, beautiful, coastal beaches, out of this world scenery, rich in resources, and not too many people. What more could a traveller ask for?

There are many different ways to see this vast country but because it’s expensive it can be a daunting task for a solo traveller on a budget like me to decide how to do it. I realised that the only way to see as much as I wanted in just under a month would be to fly the cheapest ways possible.

My intention at first was to fly to Sydney using that as a base to start and finish. However, that plan flew out the window when in December, while researching cheap flights to Australia, a fantastic opportunity with Jet Star Airlines popped up out of nowhere. My take off point was Singapore and if you want to find out why, check out my post Travel in 2018: Fulfilling a Dream. Taking this opportunity to fly to Melbourne first made sense because from there I could easily fly up to Alice Springs, on to Cairns, and then to Sydney, my departure point. Seizing this opportunity would be a good start towards helping to keep me within my budget, knowing that other things such as accommodations and food would be double the price of travelling in SE Asia.

All was good now that I had a plan. After a stress free stay in Singapore (You can check out my post entitled Four Days in Singapore )I was looking forward to my upcoming trip to the Land of Oz. On the day before my departure, I received an e-mail from Jet Star that my 8:15 p.m. flight was delayed until 5:30 the following morning. This meant I had to find a place to sleep for a few hours at least. My hotel came to the rescue with an additional charge for the extra hours I would need. On top of that was the stress of dealing with the place I had booked in Melbourne which had a ‘no refund’ policy. They did promise to hold my room until I arrived. If I wanted compensation, I would have to get it from the airline. The trouble was I didn’t take out cancellation insurance because it’s costly. This is what budget travellers do. We take our chances and hope that the worst won’t happen, and if it does, we pay for it. It’s always a gamble.

I had only three full days to explore this cultural capital of Australia which has always competed for the number one spot with Sydney to be not just the cultural capital, but the capital of the country. The war on who should get the coveted title was finally settled by the decision to build a new city as the capital which is Canberra.

Federation Square – the cultural & meeting centre for Melbourne.

My accommodation choice while in Melbourne was a small, country-style inn of some character in St. Kilda, one of Melbourne’s precincts. St Kilda is a beach side resort, not far from the CBD (central business district). With this location and its apparent old world charm, I booked a room at Little St. Kilda with booking.com. I arrived tired and cranky after a long 11 hour trip with little to eat except the few snacks I brought with me. Discount airlines give you nothing except your seat. You pay for everything including earphones if you wish to listen to music. To add insult to injury, they then charge you for the music!

Gateway to Little St. Kilda.

When I finally found Little St. Kilda, two hours after my arrival, I couldn’t get in. The door was locked and the house was in darkness. “How could this be the place I booked?” I asked myself. This looked like a private home with no one in it. There was no sign or even a house number. I looked around for a doorbell in the dark and instead found a box with numbers on it. But wait, underneath it was a button which looked promising so I pressed it, to which a voice responded telling me to use my code number. “Code number, what code number,” I yelled. “The one we sent you,”  said the calm, slightly condescending voice. “I did not receive any messages from anyone about this!” I yelled back. Realising I am starting to come apart at the seams, the voice quickly gave me the four digit code to punch in. Barely able to see the numbers, I have to trust I am hitting the right ones. With my first attempt nothing happens so I try again. “Wait for the click and then push the door,” he barks. Finally, there is a faint click and I push. I’m in! I turn left as the voice directed and find before me a long, elegant hallway with an inviting living room at the end. Where is the check-in counter, I wonder? How naive of me. This is no ordinary hotel. There is not a human in sight to greet me or to show me to my room. Now what do I do? Is this some kind of joke? Then it dawns on me that this is one of those ‘do it yourself’ check-ins similar to what you might encounter when staying at an Airbnb. The only option was to make myself comfortable on the inviting sofa until someone came along. If no one came, I thought, I could stretch out on this comfy sofa for my first night’s sleep. Thank goodness I had the good sense to stop on my way to this place for a bite to eat. At least I wouldn’t have to go to bed hungry. While pondering this rather bizarre situation, I realised the voice over the intercom had to come from somewhere in the house so in that case he would come shortly to take me to my designated room. I would just have to be patient!

It seemed like an eternity before  a young chap appeared to ask if I was happily settled into my room.  “What room?” I asked in disbelief.  “The Marina Room noted in the e-mail you were sent,” he replied. By this time I was totally baffled and wondered if I was loosing my marbles. I had been checking my e-mails and found nothing from Little St. Kilda. It wasn’t until a few weeks later I found that much-needed e-mail with all the check-in instructions in my spam box.

Once I got into my charming room, I quickly forgot my woes of getting into it. I was just thankful for a comfortable bed to lay down on for a good night’s sleep. As well as the great bed and other amenities such as a fridge and a kettle for making tea, there was also a well-equipped kitchen nearby to prepare my breakfasts in the morning and dinners at night. Dining out in Australia is very expensive so this is the only way to go if you are on a budget.

Unfortunately, other unexpected problems popped up during my stay concerning  the final bill. An additional $40 for cleaning fees had been added and no allowance had been made as I had requested for my missed night. Never have I heard of a cleaning fee for a hotel or guest house on Booking.com. On Airbnb it is clearly visible as a part of the cost. Then I got it! The owners were cutting their costs by listing with Booking instead of Airbnb because it’s cheaper for them. I checked out their website again and found to my surprise that there was mention of a cleaning fee but for less than what I was charged.

Clearly I was not too happy with my stay at Little St. Kilda. My visit had already been cut short by a day, and once there all I seemed to get was grief. My only contact with the hosts was by intercom, phone and e-mail. The young chap, who gave me an orientation of the place, was seldom to be seen afterwards. He apparently was a long-term guest enlisted by the owners to deal with problem guests like me who had difficulties with their checking-in process. From then on I was on my own to find my way around. Fortunately, the Aussies I sought help from were more than happy to comply.

When the time came for me to give my review to Booking about my stay, I realised I didn’t have much to say that was good. I was all set to give them a bad review which I rarely do since I always pick places based on good testimonials which never have let me down . Yet this place which had a 9 out of 10 didn’t come close for me. The only way to handle it was to let them know of my discontent. I did and wasn’t too surprised that after “some consultation” they would give me a refund for my missed night. In the end, they got a decent review from me, however, I did suggest they try to improve their check-in procedure and make sure a light was on for those who were checking in after dark.

My lovely room.

My first day in Melbourne was spent just getting to know the area of St. Kilda which I read was once a seedy area of nightclubs, prostitutes, and crime. This is certainly not true now as it has morphed into an up and coming area of trendy homes and restaurants.

A stately home with lovely filigree. Reminded me of homes in southern US.

However, before I set out to explore, I needed to find a place for breakfast. It was at least a ten minute walk to the centre of St. Kilda. When I got to the busiest cross street, I decided this would be the best place to look. I guessed correctly because what I found almost blew me away. It was not just the proliferation of restaurants and cafes, but in the midst of all of them were at least a half-dozen cake shops strung out in a row one after the other. Never have I ever seen such a display of mouth-watering sweets. Most of them offered good coffee and breakfast so I decided to try one out. I was famished so opted for poached eggs on toast. No butter on the toast and a fairly middling cup of coffee didn’t make much of an impression especially at a price of $11. As I was leaving, I made a promise to get to the Woolworth’s or Woolie’s* as the Aussie say before they closed to buy some food to make my own breakfasts.

One of those cake shops.

And another one.

Melbourne can boast of having some of Australia’s nicest beaches and St. Kilda is lucky enough to have one of them.  With the first glimpse of that beach, all my stress from the past few days just melted away. Finally I had found one of the reasons for my coming to Australia. It was a sunny but windy day so not overly inviting for a swim, but I found the solitude I needed by sitting there on the sand watching the balloons and surfers. I was also able to walk along the beach via a boardwalk that gave me the feeling of being in the country even though in the distance I could see Melbourne’s skyscrapers.

It was a bit wild that day.

Part of the walkway.

My remaining two days were spent exploring the CBD ( Central Business District). With the help of a Miki card which is free pass that can be topped up for any amount depending on what you are planning to use it for, I managed to get around to see a few places of note. My first stopping place was the Melbourne Museum which you can read about in Exploring the Spiritual Heart of Australia.

No, he’s not a live one. Taken at the Melbourn Museum.

There was far too much to see in just two days and getting to these places wasn’t always easy to do. I have to admit their transit system was confusing, not just for me, a visitor, but even to some of the Aussies because I kept getting different stories of how to use the card. Some stops required you to tap for getting on and off, while for others you only needed to tap getting on. Then there were the free trams which would take you around the centre. Great idea but many of the people I asked weren’t sure just where to link on to them or even which buses qualified. Such conflicting stories I did not need so opted in the end to hoof it.

I love old buildings with outstanding architecture which Melbourne has in abundance. The State Library Victoria is one of them which I found the time to visit and was glad I did. The reading room with its magnificent dome and soaring glass was one of the largest in the world when it opened in 1913. It’s now one of the most photographed sites in Australia.

A close up of the dome.

Looking down on the Reading Room with its 3-tiered gallery.

However, putting aside the architectural splendor of this building, the second most interesting thing about this library is its abundance of art and memorabilia on the state of Victoria. Here I learned all about Australia’s infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly, an Irish man of poor background, who has become the stuff of legend to most of the country. His rogue life and the discrimination he endured turned him into the kind of criminal you could not hate no matter what he did. An articulate man despite no education, he left letters which were on display stating his concern for the under privileged. In addition, there was his suit of armour which he wore on some of his killing forays to reveal his bad boy side. He would do anything so long as he could get retribution for the poor at the expense of the rich gold diggers. Not surprising that he has become a symbol of all the things that were wrong in Australian at that time.

Ned Kelly’s armour.

One of his letters.

Another attraction in Melbourne is the lovely Yarra River where you can take a boat trip or walk along its meandering course lined with numerous parks and a huge Botanical Garden. I chose to do neither since my feet would not allow it. Taking the time to sit there with the ducks was enough for me. As I gazed out over the river, I recalled a similar scene many years ago in Cambridge, England where expert oarsmen plied their skiffs along that river. I realised that this was just one of the ways that Melbourne still reveals its British heritage.

An Australian magpie.

The following day I had to leave for my next stop…Alice Springs. By now I was beginning to get a better feel for this massive country and the people. Melbourne taught me a valuable lesson as I came to grips with my rough start at Little St. Kilda. Australians really are true pioneers in a sense. Their approach seems to be that everyone, including tourists, must step up to the plate. We’ll help you but you must help yourself, too. Ask us the questions and we will answer them the best we can, but don’t expect us to read your minds. That was my first impression but I knew there would be more.

Woolworth’s is one of the largest chain of supermarkets in the country and Woolies is what they fondly call it.

Some additional shots of Melbourne

Outside the State Library

Cafe scene in St. Kilda

There’s that Aussie sense of humour.

 

 

 

Exploring the Spiritual Heart of Australia

Exploring the Spiritual Heart of Australia

A little over three weeks isn’t nearly enough time to explore this vast country. In fact, months even years might not be enough time to see it all and gain some insight into its history and how that has shaped present day Australia.

Like most fairly new, colonised countries… for example Canada, the United States, South Africa, and South America… Australia has had and still does have its problems with establishing a culture where the first inhabitants and the new comers are capable of living together peacefully and respectfully with a minimal amount of racism.

My first exposure to the extent of their problem in Australia appeared on my second day in Melbourne where, by accident, I ended up getting off at the tram stop where the Melbourne Museum is located. I was looking for the stop which would take me to the Victorian Market, one of those ‘must sees’ on the list of the Fodor’s guide. Lucky for me I missed it and instead had the opportunity to take in this fantastic museum.

The super nice young man at the ticket desk let me in for free when he found out I was a senior and directed me to the parts of the museum he thought I would be most interested in. There were at least ten different sections to choose from which I could never have done in the two to three hours I had given myself. His recommendation was to begin with the History section which was a perspective of Australia’s relationship with their Aboriginal people. This sounded far more interesting than the explorations of Captain Cook or the arrival of Australia’s first settlers who were prisoners from the British Isles. I was curious to discover what exactly were the problems they are facing and how different they might be from ours in Canada?

For a first time visitor like myself who has just a smidgen of knowledge about the Aborigines and how they are faring in their country, the museum’s portrayal was an honest and informative one. It certainly opened my eyes as to some of the culture of Australia’s first people, the Indigenous Australians as they preferred to be called, instead of Aborigines.

Aboriginal history at the Melbourne Museum.

Their history before the coming of the white man portrays their remarkable connection to the land as an ancient people of hunters and wanderers who knew exactly how to use all the resources in the harsh environment of Australia’s interior for their survival. However long it has been since they first made their appearance on the continent of Australia, there is little doubt they can claim the title of the oldest existing civilisation in the world today. This fact in itself is an astounding feat for them which created an overwhelming challenge for the first settlers who were petty thieves and criminals released from the penal system in England. They began arriving in this strange land and to meet their new neighbours in the year of 1788 just about 230 years ago.

One of the best examples of the Indigenous Australians’ ability to be resourceful and adaptive to such a harsh environment is no doubt in their ability to live off the land using everything that was at their disposal which happened to be more than the plants and animals. During my tour of the museum, I learned how in later years, when the first white settlers began to infiltrate the interior to build towns in the rough and ready outback, they found an unusual way to communicate with the original inhabitants.

They discovered that the Aboriginal people had a miraculous ability to fix their old trucks and cars to keep them in good enough shape to endure the rigours of the almost non-existent roads of the outback. This picture below shows an example of their skill. Totally amazed at their skill in keeping their machines running, they became known as the bush mechanics. A series entitled “The Bush Mechanics” was created to eventually become a hit on the Australian TV networks for many years. There are now plans to revive the series with new episodes. It has apparently awakened some understanding between these two very different cultures.

One of their refurbished old cars.

It wasn’t until I flew to Alice Springs that I had the opportunity to learn more about the aboriginals’ strong connection to land and their Country, the word they use to refer to Australia. I gained a better understanding of how this connection is reflected in their art work which now sells around the world. Their art can help all of us to increase our knowledge of them which in turn will help us to understand why it’s been so difficult for the two cultures to come together. For example, I have learned that the term “Dreamtime” was the method they used to record their culture and their spiritual beliefs through stories related to every animal and plant. Since they didn’t use writing, their stories were told with drawings painted on the rocks and the bark of the trees in colours made from the ochre or red sand around them. Each story tells a moral or gives a lesson about how to live and behave which parents used to teach their children. You could say it served the same purpose as our Bible although the first white settlers wouldn’t have understood this.

One other reason for the challenge of integrating the two cultures.

Alice Springs has numerous art galleries and shops promoting Aboriginal art work of some artists who have gained world-wide fame. They are continuing to tell the stories that have been passed down to them by their ancestors by using a technique of painting with dots. This is the favoured method of a tribe located near Alice Springs. Other artists are painting with water colours  which are equally as beautiful. The sellers of these works of art are quick to point out that a portion of the proceeds goes back to the communities. Unfortunately, such original works have become very expensive which has given rise to the proliferation of cheap knock offs coming from China.

Realising the need for more projects to raise money for the outlying communities around Alice and other centres, the people and the government are giving their support to creating other projects that will make their communities more sustainable and give further recognition to how the Aboriginal way of life can be of benefit to the country. This has resulted in the promotion of bushfoods or Bush Tucker which is appearing on restaurant menus and in the aisles of supermarkets. It’s all the rage for those who are always looking to try new foods. They can now indulge in kangaroo and emu meat, crocodile, bush tomatoes, and wattle seeds to name just a few popular bushfoods. Wattle is another name for the acacia tree of which Australia has over 100 varieties. The use of plants to help in health and prevention for common everyday illnesses is also catching on. Those famous eucalyptus and tea tree oils are now shipped around the world for their medicinal properties. Keep in mind that the Indigenous are very old and still surviving today because they knew how to use all their plants for healing. Unfortunately, their medicines could not prevent a large portion of their population from being wiped out by the diseases brought to them by their Europeans invaders.

This fruit is another popular bushfood.

A ghost gum – one of many kinds of eucalyptus trees in the Olive Pink Gardens.*

Many Australians are now opening up their minds to learn more from their first inhabitants as we are in our country of Canada. It’s definitely an encouraging movement to witness.

One of the first things to hit me, which I found very distressing when I made my first sojourn into the centre of Alice…the locals preference for how they refer to their city … was the huge number of Aborigines wandering around or simply sitting in the parks and shopping malls doing not much of anything. The more lively ones seemed to be enjoying on-going conversations on their cell phones. I later found out that many of them have been banned by their communities throughout Central Australia because of their drinking problems. They have chosen to set up tent sites along the Todd River in Alice, which has a special spiritual connection for them, but in doing so have brought their alcohol problems with them. Drinking has led to parental neglect with the youth running amok attacking whites and breaking into the downtown businesses. With strong leadership from a few Aboriginals, the town council is now listening and working with them to come up with solutions for how to deal with the problem. There has been some gradual improvement as more children are encouraged to stay in school resulting in a slight increase in the number of high school graduates.

A main street in Alice Springs.

Aboriginals who can’t find work or who are without shelter do qualify for a basic allowance from the government to provide for the needs of their children. The government also put in a stipulation that the sale of alcohol would be restricted to them. Of course, this hasn’t been an answer to the problem; it has only exacerbated it. Some of the town officials are finally realising that only way it can work is if they are given more control over their own lives. Various Prime Ministers, such as Harold Holt, have tried to address the problem by enacting certain laws around land claims, but most have failed because of ingrained racism. My sense is that right now it’s an uncomfortable subject for most Aussies to talk about except for the young people who do understand the need for change in solving this huge problem.

This was taken from a distance since Aboriginals do not want to have their pictures taken.

A trip to Central Australia and the Outback wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Aluru, the Aboriginal name for what we have always called Ayer’s Rock. I quickly signed up for a one-day excursion with Emu Run Tours. The Rock is about 250 km west of Alice which meant an early start at 6 a.m. and a long day that ended at midnight back at my pick-up point near where my Airbnb place was located.

Our Emu Run tour bus. Water tanks on the bus kept us supplied with water to prevent dehydration from the heat.

Our first stop on the way to Ayer’s Rock.

Our second stop to view Kata Tjuta – four giant rocks sometimes called the Four Olgas. Almost as imposing as Aluru.

Ancient Aboriginal art work is still visible here, too.

This is charming Elizabeth who became my friend because we shared the same name. She is modelling her fly net which most of us wore to keep the pests off our faces.

This tour was worth every dollar spent….no tours come cheaply in Australia. We were given just enough breaks to keep us watered, fed, and comfortable throughout the long bus ride. The guides and driver who took turns at keeping us informed and safe would change their roles so we got different perspectives from all three of them. They were fantastic with a sense of Aussie humour to boot. Of course, the main highlights of the day were our first sighting of the Rock sitting majestically there in the middle of nowhere.

Our first sight of Aluru – Ayer’s Rock.

Our close up view of the rock was led by our knowledgeable guide, Eric, who happened to be a French Canadian from Quebec who has a genuine interest in the Indigenous Australians. Not only did he present us with a balanced view to the problems between the two cultures, he was also exceptional at relating the stories and interpretations of the cave drawings he was showing us.

This is Eric.

Some animal paintings on the side of the Rock.

The Rock up close shows its many sides. It is more than just a gigantic rock plunked down on a desert plain.

He also took some time to explain the present day situation of Aluru. Since it sits on the most sacred piece of land to the Aboriginals and has become a famous tourist attraction, it has morphed into the contentious issue of land reclamation. After years of debate, the government with representation from both sides, has struck a deal with the Aboriginals whereby it can remain as a tourist site but can also be closed at times when there is a sacred ceremony or some other indigenous event. The most important decision has been to ban any further climbing up to the top of the rock as of October of next year. In other words, it is to be shared for the benefit of both sides…a win/win situation we hope.

Our final event and farewell to this tour was to witness how the setting sun can change Aluru to various hues ranging from brown to pink and, finally, crimson red. To top off this sight, our team of guides fired up the ‘barbie’ to BBQ for us some good old Aussie beef and sausages  accompanied by a glass of Australian red, white or sparkling wine. What a fantastic farewell to such a memorable day.

The Rock just before sunset.

At sunset.

Australia is on the precipice of change which could set a wonderful example of how two very different cultures could exist and prosper. Since I arrived here, I have learned much about the problem facing her and other countries, including our own, who face the same challenge. I am leaving you with the following quote from a little known professor of one of Australia’s universities who said:

“Australia is the flattest, driest, ugliest place on earth. Only those who can be possessed by her can know what secret beauty she holds.”

* Olive Pink was a woman who devoted her entire life to fighting for the Aboriginal way of life when she saw how the rampant race for its gold and other minerals was affecting their spiritual and physical existence. She never gave up her fight and died in Alice Springs in her ’90’s. Her legacy was to leave this huge tract of land, the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens, which is run voluntarily by a group of dedicated citizens who want to keep her devotion and good works alive. It was here where I had my first up close meeting with a trio of kangaroo.

 

 

Four Days in Singapore

With a four-day stop over in Singapore,  I am happy to report that just about everything that’s been said about this unique city/city-state is true.

I arrived at Changi Airport just as the sun was setting so was able to see what was in store as the shuttle bus drove at a decent speed into the centre of the city where I am staying. The Bougainvillea lined freeway failed to turn up even one scrap of garbage…anywhere. I was looking both sides and saw nothing. What a contrast to Cambodia or any of the SE Asian countries.

I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps this is why some have said they found Singapore boring. Was it boring because it looks like a city should with clean streets and orderly traffic? Are we to the point that it takes dirt and poverty to stimulate our senses?

To tell the truth, these very qualities espoused by Singapore have put me into seventh heaven. For me it’s a pleasure to be walking around a city that seems to work. Traffic is heavy as it is in all big cities, but it moves at a good pace. There isn’t a lot of honking and excessive noise with big trucks and buses spewing out toxic fumes. Motorists stop for pedestrians before you even put a foot into the street, and they wait until you are all the way across. Pedestrians are equally as courteous. They don’t jay walk, and they wait patiently at the traffic lights until the walk signal comes up. At times this seems like an eternity to me. The Singaporeans don’t mind waiting; they can check their phones instead. Everyone has a phone to play with here. When I thought Bangkok took the prize for this phenomenon I have learned that it must be Singapore. While on the MRT (the subway), all twenty or so people in my car  except me and one other person was concentrated on their phones.

Street scene with old and new.

Since my solo travel began five years ago, I have found that the best way for me to explore a large city at first is by walking and getting to know the area where I am staying. I keep the regular tourist sites or ‘must sees’ for later…if ever. I am happy to get three out of ten of the best recommended sites. Trying to take in everything that everyone else goes to see would stress me out. I’ll take sore feet at the end of a day over that kind of stress.

My first day in a brand new city, especially one that has been recently named the most expensive place to live in the world, can offer mixed emotions for me. Yes, it’s definitely thrilling  for me to explore new territory but underneath there is always a little anxiety. My main stressors are getting oriented so I at least head out in the general direction I want to go and figuring out the general lay of the land. That way I can finally decide where I want to walk.

The advantage I had in carrying out this plan in Singapore is that all Singaporeans speak English. This is their first language but then you have all the various other languages, such as Mandarin, Malay, and Hindi with their different accents and rendition of English which doesn’t always make their English understandable to a person like me whose auditory strength borders on the weak side. With the help from the friendly staff at the Champion Hotel City where I have been staying, I quickly opted to start my exploration close to my area which just happens to be at the border of Chinatown and within walking distance to downtown and the Singapore River.

Entrance to Chinatown.

I found out that the river is the cleanest it’s ever been. At one time before Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965 it was filthy. I doubt many places can boast of this today, at least not any in Asia.

The Singapore River

Fortunately, I had an ideal location and if I wanted to go further afield all I had to do was figure out the complicated (to me anyway) subway system and go from there. I decided to make it really simple that first day by walking straight up Victoria Rd. to the area known as Bugis noted for its diversity, history and shopping.

Entering the Bugis area.

I expect most of you have heard of the Raffles Hotel with its famous bar serving the equally famous singapore sling. How about the man who started all this…Sir Stamford Raffles? My trek to Bugis helped me sort out some historical facts regarding this man who is considered to be the founder of what is modern-day Singapore. It has a humble beginning as a fishing village inhabited by poor Malays (people from Malaysia) at the time when Raffles’ made his appearance under British rule. This was in the early 1800’s which isn’t so old by our standards considering what Singapore is today. At that time, the area was controlled by the Dutch and those living there, numbering about a 1,000 were chafing at the bit under their rule. Sensing this, Raffles quickly proposed a more lucrative trade for them under Britain. With the right kind of diplomacy and salesmanship, a partnership was born and there has been no looking back ever since. Today his legacy can be seen on buildings and streets everywhere.

A little history of Bugis and Sir Stamford Raffles.

Before reaching Bugis I came upon a stately white portal or gate and wall encircling an attractive older building and grounds which looked at first glance like a five-star hotel sporting a couple of high-class restaurants and a courtyard. Seeing a parade of women dressed in beautiful long dresses spoke of some kind of ceremony to be held…a wedding perhaps? However upon closer scrutiny, I realised I was wandering around a significant historical site which also housed a gorgeous Gothic style church painted in white. Except for its colour it looked much like the Notre Dame in Paris. The site I had stumbled upon is called Chijmes, dating back to the 1880’s when it was built as an orphanage by the nuns for abandoned females. As far as I can fathom, it simply isn’t on the tourist radar. None of the brochures and maps mentioned it. Such a pity because the site is beautiful and a perfect symbol of Singapore’s past. The ladies were singers taking part in a Singing Festival. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out when the actual performance was to be held. What I saw was a dress rehearsal.

The Chijmes Cathedral

A choir in their lovely purple dresses.

My travels that day also took me to a couple of ritzy malls… the brochures weren’t kidding when they said this was one of the best shopping areas in the city along with others like Orchard Road, Little India, Chinatown, and the list goes on. Singapore could brag they are the most over-malled city in the world.

At one point I wandered into a predominately Muslim area (Halal) evidenced by the number of women wearing scarves. Hunger was taking over by this time so I decided to stop for an afternoon meal which would serve as lunch and dinner. A restaurant with the Trip Advisor logo and a claim to have the best biryani in Singapore caught my attention so I decided to give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed and by Singaporean standards I got good value for my money at $14 which by the way is a few cents more in our Canadian money. Not bad considering the menus I had looked at where almost double that.

A chocolate dessert at a mere $18.

One of the tourist recommendations I did take in was the iLight Show at Marina Bay a magical display of light and colour celebrating the city’s support of sustainability. It showed creations from artists around the world including a Canadian artist from Quebec.

An exhibit made from used plastic.

This creation named Light Breeze is made from used neon tubes.

The light show with the Marina Bay in the background.

I couldn’t afford to have a drink at Raffles so instead I went to Level 33 a bar up on the 33rd floor of the Marina Bay Financial Centre where I opted for a cappuccino which I enjoyed much more than a singapore sling. The views were just as good, too.

View from Level 33 of the harbour and the container ships.

View of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino with the Supertrees Garden on top.

Yesterday I met up with some Chiang Mai friends at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Halia Restaurant. We had so much to talk about that we didn’t leave nearly enough time to explore this English garden landscape dating back to the 1800’s. To this day it remains a major centre for plant research and breeding, with orchids leading the list. It’s one of the most visited gardens in the world and has won numerous awards. Time magazine described it as ‘Asia’s best urban jungle’. It comes highly recommended so I’m sorry we didn’t plan this better so we could see more of it. Maybe it was just as well we didn’t because by the time we finished our meal the humidity and the heat were overwhelming.

Friends Irene and Trevor.

Finally, you can’t visit Singapore and not take the time to visit the two most popular enclaves: Chinatown and Little India. I had my first meal in Chinatown the night I arrived…dumplings, my favourite Chinese food. Then yesterday I made a quick run through Little India, brimming with colour and bargains in Indian jewellery and clothing. For Indian food lovers there were restaurants galore. This was probably the place where I saw more garbage than usual, nevertheless,  by Indian standards it just couldn’t compare.

Street scene in Little India.

Colourful Indian saris.

Four days were about the right amount of time for me. There was still much more I could have seen and done had my budget allowed. I have no regrets in stopping over, and one thing for sure it’s prepared me for what lies ahead. Australia is also an expensive country to visit so getting used to such high prices has been a learning curve which I know I’ll have to deal on my next stop which will be Melbourne.

Chinatown