Just for a change I thought I'd post about the kind of thing I used to when I started this blog.
Last Tuesday I had the happy job of accompanying my son on only his second school trip. D had been counting down the sleeps until we travelled to the Chinese Gardens with his little classmates and was very excited. The excitement, I think, was borne not out of the Chinese Gardens themselves (he's been there a handful of times before) but the means with which we would get there. Not, as I assumed, by school bus. Oh no. By public transport. Now as we all know, public transport in Singapore is a breeze and taking a four year old boy on there poses no concerns on my part but taking nineteen excitable boys and girls on board may be a slightly different matter. Fortunately (for everyone concerned), I was not solely responsible for the entire number an indeed each child was required to have a parent or guardian in attendance. This was quite reassuring and I think everyone felt pretty confident that everything would be simple. That was, until, Mrs P. (D's class teacher) herded all the parents outside (to howls of derision from some of the kids in the class) to give us the a detailed blow-by-blow account of how the morning was going to unfold right from the point of leaving the sanctity of the school playground to the point where she could relinquish responsibilities once we were back on school turf. Don't get me wrong, I really like Mrs P. and think she's a fantastic teacher, but the calculated way in which she was telling us everything started to put the wind up us wide-eyed parents. I felt it was likely to be more of an education for us than for the kids by the sounds of things!
Anyway, briefing over and hand-in-hand with our charges (at all times, a very clear stipulation) we were handed plastic zip-loc bags of coins. All named with the mode of transport and the person (me or D) that had to use it. Now, I'd assumed we were just going to use EZ-Link cards as per usual but, oh no, we were paying cash. A first for me and for most of the other parents (those that had ever used public transport). And also, the kids would be paying. We queued for the bus which leaves from just outside the school gates, on the opposite side of the road. Lots of excited chatter from the kids. I took the bags of change form D and appropriated the amounts between us. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing (I guess they had been prepped at school). So, as the bus approached, 41 rustling plastic bags were opened to the tune of 'hold on to it tightly' and we boarded the bus. The look on bus captains face said it all. 19 kids all being lifted up to reach so they could deposit their coins then grab the ticket followed closely by their guardians doing likewise (without the lifting in most cases) and shouting 'go and sit down'!
Then the walk down to the gardens themselves, over the bridge ('look at the water monitor lizard, daddy', being one of those expressions you never thought you'd hear from your offspring, but now do with surprising regularity) and on towards the pagoda where we stop for snacks. Well, most of us do but one of the dads has left son's snack-pack in his school bag (not required for this trip) and son is very, very hungry. 'D, can your friend have some of your snack, please?'. 'No', comes the reply! Well, you know who your mates are!
After finishing snacks (and sneaking out some of D's leftovers for his mate) we wobble across the stepping stones and on towards the other side of the park. There's some moaning about tiredness starting to break out and we are on a mission to get to the car park where the school coach is waiting (I wasn't aware we were getting the coach and am somewhat relieved, thinking we were on for the return trip on the MRT/bus). Still time left for the kids to break rank and charge over the bridge giving Mrs P. mild palpitations as she knows the other side is very steep. Amazingly all the kids negotiate it with no skinned knees or crying and we are nearly home and dry. Just the head count on to the coach and we are there. Homeward bound. And tired out!
Friday, February 17, 2012
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Perfect for the viewing public and photographers but alas, I fear, less so for those devotees demonstrating their faith in such an extraordinary way. Dehydration must be extreme (I drank in excess of 1.5 litres just trailing these guys around), especially for those with their tongues pierced making consuming water almost impossible without choking. Indeed, this year the devotees seemed to be suffering somewhat more than last year with a couple I saw passing out. They were up on their feet (with help), in no time but it just shows the extent they go to to demonstrate their faith. I feel I spent more time taking the spectacle in this year as opposed to last year when I took photos like it was going out of fashion. I also felt much more at home on the streets of Little India and Tank Road as the year in between has served to teach me more about the people here and become more in tune with the way they live. I felt much comfortable and less intrusive whilst taking photos and generally chatting to people about the experience that is Thaipusam.
It's amazing that such a large festival (around 36 hours and thousands of devotees walking the streets. Not to mention the friends and family, helpers, hangers-on, volunteers handing out water and cooking food and of course the massive numbers of those coming to view the spectacle), barely spills outside the confines of the temporary fencing put up to contain it. Indeed, a street or two back from Serangoon Road (the main road through Little India), you wouldn't know it was going on and the locals are sitting back having a kopi and cigarette just like any other day. The usual infusion of incense, flower garlands and spices emanating from the shopfronts gives the place it's usual, comfortable feel. Inside the temples the Hindu worshippers enter into a much more personal, yet no less meaningful, form of adulation. Prayers are said, some silent, some not so silent. Candles, made at dazzling speed on site, are lit and the Gods are idolised in among the men, women and families clammering to pay their respects. Each person clothed in their finest attire lest they be accused of falling short of the level of reverence expected of such occasion. The atmosphere in the temples felt truly a family affair, very relaxed with a lot of smiling faces. Yet, in the background, an underlying tempo being struck up by the drumming followers of the devotees leads you back into the throng. As you negotiate your way to the front of the crowds you start to see the real meaning of blood, sweat and tears. The immense amount of apparent physical effort being put suddenly in doubt as the kadavi-barers break into a dance and twist and twirl down the street, their kadavis suddenly coming to life and bending and bowing under their owner's efforts. The followers continuing to keep up the tempo to encourage the trance-like state that these men and women get in to to complete the challenge.
This year as well as treading the streets during the heat of the day I also ventured out in the evening after dark. It feels and looks different at that time. Many more people spilling out of their work places to line the streets, part in support and part in wonder and awe. Some watching family and friends come past, some in it (myself included) for the photo opportunities. Some of the kadavis are lit and some appear to tower over the offerings seen earlier in the day. Maybe it was the lighting or maybe they really were bigger, but to carry them looked almost unfeasible. The cool breeze of the night was definitely a help to those walking and the streets were packed, much more so than during the day. It was also evident that the general population of Little India (and Indians in general) were out to pay homage in the evening meaning the kadavi carriers were even more obstructed from walking than during the day. Indeed, I felt having to wait at each set of traffic lights (and trust me, there are a lot of them in Singapore), was a little harsh. But if that what it takes, then these guys are up for the challenge.
For a view on what I saw and felt last year about Thaipusam have a look here.
Monday, February 6, 2012
The ‘Forbidden Hill’ or Fort Canning, as it now known, is one of Singapore’s most centrally situated parks. Set on a small hill, it overlooks Orchard Road on one side and Clarke Quay on the other, two of the busiest areas in town. Although with it’s central location you may expect it to be a noisy affair it actually is a serene get away from the hustle and bustle of the main shopping area and can be walked to from Orchard Road without needing to get a taxi. As with many places in Singapore, there is plenty of history, places to find and of course eat in close attendance.
It was known as Bukit Larangan ('Forbidden Hill' in Malay) before Stamford Raffles’ arrival in 1819 and was renamed Government Hill to reflect it’s position as a seat of power. Indeed, so taken was Raffles with the area that he set up residence here. It gained its current name in 1860 when a fort was built and named after Viscount Charles John Canning, the Governor-General at that time.
Set as it is on a small hill, in times past the lighthouse towards the top of the hill was a focal point of mariners needing a point of reference at sea. Today, this seems quite unlikely as the park is set a considerable way from navigable water (the pleasure cruisers along the river being the only mariners close by these days). Land reclamation has set the park back from the coast by a considerable margin and the lush vegetation and buildings surrounding it now conceal the lighthouse.
Another notable point of historical interest is a little fresher in our memories. The Battle Box, buried deep beneath Fort Canning, was used for command and communications across Malaya throughout the Second World War. It is also the site for the infamous surrender by Britain to the Japanese in February 1942. The former ‘Underground Far East Command Centre’ is now a museum, which costs around S$5 to visit. It is well worth a look if only to see the size of the place, which at one point accommodated around 500 military personnel. Although relatively simply done, the experience is quite evocative with a dark, dank slightly perturbing feeling as you walk around it and serves as a reminder of how un-glamorous war really is. It leaves quite an eerie impression on the soul.
Just up the hill from the Battle Box is Fort Canning Centre, a magnificently grand building that served as a barracks for the British Army and stands at the top of the slope of Fort Canning Green. Singapore Dance Theatre, who gives performances throughout the year, uses the building as a dance centre. Fort Canning Green, its grassy slopes dropping away from the Centre’s terrace, is the site of many of the concerts, carnivals and performances held in Fort Canning. The levity of the entertainment here belies its history of being a cemetery and tombstones can be seen set in to the boundary walls of the Green.
As you continue to wander the myriad emerald pathways that bisect the park, you find all manner of historic artifacts confronting you and nearly every turn; 9- pounder cannons, an excavation site containing 14th Century relics, the Old Lighthouse, Fort Canning Gate, Keramat Iskandar Shah (a sacred place dedicated to the last ruler of 14th century Singapore) and the James Brooke Napier Memorial. You may even come across the occasional wedding held in the lush, serene area by Raffles’ House.
On the fringes of the park are plenty of eateries (as one finds all over Singapore) with many places to sit and picnic or read at your leisure.
I ate in Flutes at the Fort with friends the last time I ventured there. A very nice, intimate and secluded venue for brunch (which is what we were there for) with a wooden verandah or inside space so you can choose to eat au naturel or air-cooled. However, slightly disappointingly (but not surprisingly) the usual Singapore build-it-up, knock-it-down works were going on nearby. Sufficed to say we ate inside and that was fine. The noise quiet enough not to be intrusive, especially once we'd started talking. Service was very good as the pricing might suggest it should be (although I would say in Singapore, as a rule, don't make a judgement on what the service is likely to be like based on the pricing!). The food was excellent (although they were a little shy about the amount of strawberries on my wife's waffle) and I had a little trouble deciding what I was going eat. Find the 'brunch menu' here if you'd like to look. A very nice way to spend a lazy late breakfast though.
Labels: attractions, battle box, Bukit Larangan, Canning Park, Clarke Quay, flutes at the fort, Forbidden Hill, Government hill, local Singapore, orchard, Photography, Singapore, Singapore attractions, Tourists