11 January 2009

Week 59: Two days in Singapore. And then that was it. I came back home.

59th-1st in Singapore 10/15

Early in the morning we arrived at the border of Malaysia and Singapore. At the last stop in Malaysia, immigration officials came on board and checked all our passports and visas. However, we did not get stamped out of Malaysia here, and in fact we would never get this stamp. When we reached the actual border with Singapore we had to alight from the train, and go through off board immigration. We submitted our immigration documents and got stamped into the country. Comparing this whole border train crossing to Bangladesh and India, this was incredibly fast.

From the border it was only a short trip to the final train station in the island nation of Singapore. Despite what we hoped, that we’d have an MRT stop right nearby the station, this ended up not being the case. We had to walk several blocks to an MRT station.
She had booked us at the same hostel she had stayed in a few weeks back for three days. We arrived but couldn’t put our stuff in yet, beds not ready. So we left our things and sought out foreign exchange, breakfast and internet in that order.

After finally getting our bunkbeds, and showering, we set out to explore the city. She was gracious to re-see some things she’d seen before, but also was excited to show them to me. We made an okay balance. I first got lunch, she wasn’t hungry. We sat at one of Singapore’s famous outdoor food courts, perfect for the nice year round weather.

She showed me the city’s main library, and got a view from the top. The city itself is super nice. Everything is impeccably clean, not surprising as Singapore is famous for strict rule enforcement. At one point I spit on the street, and instantly I realized that this was finable here. Luckily I wasn’t caught. (pics: myself in front of Singapore's National Library, view from the top of the library over a part of Singapore)

I was excited to see their transportation system, which is a model for all the world. Their inner city congestion pricing is also famous. (pic: the signage and information board for the congestion pricing system in place in Singapore)

She brought me over to Suntech City, which has the Fountain of Wealth, the largest fountain in the world. The whole place was really nice. In the area around, Amy pointed out to me the structures erected for the Formula 1 race held here a few weeks ago. She was here when the race was in town, although she didn’t get to watch. I was jealous. She said you could hear the cars ripping through the city from far away. (pics: myself in front of the Fountain of Wealth at Suntech City, remannts of the stands and track lights for the F1 race in Singapore)

We decided to head to Singapore’s big tourist attraction, a giant Ferris wheel called the Singapore Flyer, similar to the London Eye. We knew it’d be expensive but it was more than we thought. We decided to do it anyway; it was the one thing she’d wanted to do coming back. I had an HSBC credit card, and it ended up giving us a 20% discount. (pics: Amy with the Singapore Flyer in the background which was the one thing she missed on her first visit, myself at the base of one of the support poles for the Singapore Flyer)

The views from the top of the Singapore Flyer were incredible. You could see out all over the island of Singapore as well as the ends of Indonesia and Malaysia. The little map they give you onboard was real helpful in identifying places. (pics: Singapore Flyer's 20+ cars, myself on the Singapore Flyer, Amy with Singapore's central business district behind, boats sitting in the Strait of Malacca with Indonesia in the background)

Singapore is the most expensive place I’ve traveled in this past year. Meals, hotels, and everything else were two to three times more than what I’d expect in other Southeast Asian countries, and much much more than South Asia. You pay the price for clean and orderly.
After lunch we walked out on the F1 race course. The grandstands were right behind the Ferris wheel. The track was smooth, and it was so great to look down the finishing straightaway. We straddled the finish line and took photos, while workers dismantling the temporary stands giggled at us. (pics: finish line and grandstands for Singapore's F1 racetrack, myself standing on the F1 finish line)

We walked through the city some more, passing through the Esplanade Mall, and getting some ice cream on the street. We walked into the financial district and crossed over a small pedestrian bridge over the Singapore River. She brought me to a third mall, this one which had two fountains she really liked, however one was not on and that was disappointing. (pics: Amy on our way to the central business district of Singapore, myself and the Singapore River)

We took a ride on the MRT to Orchard Road, the Rodeo Drive of Singapore, except larger, and not as fancy. We walked down it to the end and made our way, a long walk, to the Botanical Gardens. We passed the US Embassy on the way over. We sat in the botanical gardens for a long time, but less than an hour. We watched the ducks, stared at the water, and talked a bit. The place was huge and we only saw a small part of it.
We headed back to Orchard Road looking to get a drink somewhere. One place we sat down at didn’t serve alcohol but we got some mozzarella sticks instead. The second place we found had drinks, so she got an LIT and I got a beer.

For Amy’s last meal in Asia we ate dumplings at a Chinese restaurant.

By the end of the day, my feet were very sore from walking. We had some beers back at the hostel to end our day. It was our last together in Asia. I would be sad to say goodbye in the morning.

59th-2nd in Singapore 10/16

In the morning Amy got up early, it was her time to head to the airport to leave. I walked her the 10 minutes to the MRT stop, and hugged her goodbye as she left to fly to Australia. We both were sad to see each other go. I walked back in the dark to get an hour or two more of sleep before starting my last day in Asia. (pic: Amy leaving me at the MRT station off to catch a train to take her to her flight to Australia)

I went to an internet café in the morning. Then went to get breakfast and packed up at the hostel. Complimentary eggs you cook yourself. Had to remove my bag from the dorm room and leave it under the stairs until I was ready to leave later.

My goal today was to see the communities in the suburbs of Singapore which are based around an elevated train system called the LRT. These trains meet with the MRT trunk lines of the city system. It creates communities where one can work, play, learn, and live. The MRT ride out took about 40 minutes. I chose a random station far out at the end of the line where these train based communities were. There, I could transfer to the LRT, or shop at the shopping mall which doubled as a transit hub. (pic: long MRT train)

Very intelligent design. Each stop on the community line served as a hub for the area’s growth. All buildings were centered on it. It was really cool. At the stops there would be a commercial center with shops, and a school nearby, as well as a gym sometimes. This was all centered on transit, enabling everyone to live car-less. (pics: information board on how to connect to the LRT, suburban LRT on its tracks through apartment complexes, clusters of apartments are built around schools and community centers reducing the length of trips people need to take, commercial and residential areas are easily connected to the LRT)

I’m trying to experience a last bit of Asia, and I think this was a good way. To see where the future of development for these cities can go, and how the transportation links it all. I’m excited to see their future projects.
I went back to the mall at the main line transit hub for lunch. Walked around its stores and went to the food court up top. Similar to what I saw in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, lots of Asian options with one tiny western food stall. Got to choose which delicacy I wanted. I sat in the food court after eating and absorbed where I was spending my last few hours in Asia.

I took the MRT back into the city. I had a postcard from the Singapore flyer yesterday and wanted to mail it out. I’d written a letter to the crew team on it. Finding a place to buy a stamp and then a postbox was difficult for some reason. After getting the stamp from a 7-11, I found a postman but he wouldn’t let me give him the postcard directly. Finally after searching for 20 minutes I found a postbox.

I meandered the streets where my hostel was in Little India. Walked through a streetside flea market, not very good or big. Paused to listen to two men speaking Bengali. I went back to the hotel and sat around for a bit. I was done. Nothing else I was wanting to go out and see or do. So I decided to go sit somewhere near a train station and just watch the city go by. So I got my stuff and walked to the MRT stop near us. I sat on a bench and read my book A Good Man in Africa. When it was time to go, I went into the nearby outdoor food court and got one more fresh fruit shake in Asia, my favorite, dragonfruit. I then got on the MRT to take me to the airport. Of course the whole system of getting there was easy and flawless. (pics: the bench and area in which I spent my last time in Singapore reading, the juice stand I got my last dragonfruit juice)

I had tried to buy gum for the airplane before leaving, but they don’t sell gum in Singapore. They don’t want you spitting it out on the streets. I wondered if chewing it is punishable by law.

Amy had talked about the airport a lot to me. Told me how great it was, free internet, amazing shops, a movie theater inside. Well since I was flying Tiger Airways back to Bangkok, I was not in one of the cool three big terminals. I was in the budget terminal, which to get to, you have to take a shuttle bus from there the train stops. Luxuries are lost when you fly budget. The terminal was empty. I was able to get a muffin for a snack and exchange my Singapore dollars for US dollars. And they still had free internet, which I used. (pic: Singapore's budget terminal which appropriately lacks flair and tons of amenities)

I waited for my flight. We all got on line. And then they told us the flight was delayed. I started getting really scared. They said one hour we would have to sit there. I only had a six hour window between flights in Bangkok, and had to use that time to get my stuff from the hostel. Worried. Praying. Worried. And then we left. It ended up being only a half hour delay. Phew. Should still have plenty of time to do what I needed to do in Bangkok.

The flight was fine. Everything went smooth. I arrived in Bangkok and rushed as fast as I could to leave the airport. Honestly, it felt like all the staff was rushing with me, because all necessary steps such as immigration and getting transport went TOO smoothly. No lines anywhere. In my mind I imagined everyone knew I had limited time and was helping me out.
I found the shuttle bus easy to take me to the bus terminal. It was packed. We got to the bus terminal and I got on the bus to take me to the hostel. I had budgeted this out all perfectly. I knew where to get off and paid the bus conductor. Really feel like Bangkok is very familiar now. Getting off at Sukhumvit Road near the hostel and walking there was like walking up my driveway.
I arrived and gladly presented my claim receipts for my stored luggage. Everything was safe, laptop and all. I dragged my now six bags into the dining room, spread it all out on the floor and set to work combining all my possessions into my four travel bags. No problem at all. A New Zealander was watching me do it, and we chatted while I packed. I also overheard an American guy talking about having to pick his wife up from the airport, so I asked him if he’d like to split a taxi when I had to go. We would be heading there around the same time anyway.
I had enough time, budgeted well, and packed so fast, that I could even take a shower at the hostel. Refreshing to spruce up for the long flights.

The guy and I got in our taxi around 10:30 pm to head to the airport. On the forty five minute ride there he told me all about his time living in the Phillipines, and that place in general and how he met his wife there.
He helped me bring my bags into the terminal then went downstairs to arrivals to wait for his wife. I went to check in and found out my big bag was too heavy, my small bag still had room to spare. So I sat down in the check-in area and started transferring things to the smaller bag. Walked back over and now everything was in the proper weight range, 24 kg for each bag! They didn’t give me any trouble about what carry-ons I had. Was real happy not to have issues like I did leaving Dhaka. The check-in lady was really helpful and explained everything very clearly too me. Just the opposite of what I had at JFK leaving 13 months ago. At the end, she told me I looked very handsome when I smile. Not a bad way to start a trip home. (pics: repacking my bags so the make weight in the Bangkok airport, my flight to Seoul/Incheon and the start of my trip home)

It’s so weird how you can never really picture your last day somewhere. I never thought I’d be cooking eggs or riding a suburban monorail on my last day. Or sitting and reading by a subway stop. Or walking through a junk fair. But I did. I kind of like that life doesn’t make the important days anything special.

59th-3rd on the flights to Newark 10/17

In the airport I got Burger King for dinner. A wonderful American way to transition back, and also within my budget of the last of my Baht. I then slowly meandered the airport. I had a few more Baht and used it to buy some peanuts for the flight, in case I got hungry beyond what they served.

My flight was on time. Korean Airways flight left at 1:30 AM carrying me from Bangkok to Seoul. My flight schedule was tight, with just an hour in between flights in Seoul, and an hour and half in Atlanta before heading to Newark.

The first flight was fine. Most people were sleeping. I didn’t doze off much, I don’t sleep usually on planes. Before we landed they served us breakfast. I chose the Korean meal over the western one, and I regretted it. What they served me was a bland hot cereal, yet served cold. In order to flavor it they give us dried seaweed flakes to spread on top.

We deplaned in Seoul, and I had 40 minutes until boarding the next flight. We all had to go through security, and it was a bunch of novices handling it. They moved slowly and cautiously beyond what I’d ever seen. They also seemed very confused at times, and kept having to phone out questions. All of us transferring were very nervous. And they only had one line! I’m lucky I had gotten there near the front or I would’ve been a wreck.
Well the one problem of the trip home happened here, I had forgotten to take my pocketknife out of my carry-on luggage when I repacked my bags in Bangkok. So they confiscated it and had to wrap it up and put it in a pouch underneath the airplane. This is the knife my Uncle Frank got me for my Bar Mitzvah 10 years ago. Didn’t want to just say throw it out. It took them 20 minutes until someone came to retrieve the knife. I had to sign some forms.
Finally I was on my way and could go to my gate. Already there was a long line. But there were no issues after that. I checked in, went through two more rounds of security, and finally got to sit on my trans-Pacific flight home.

The man next to me was handicapped. I had wanted an aisle seat but they were all taken when I had checked-in in Bangkok. So I was in the middle. That meant every time I wanted to pee, I had to get past him. I especially don’t like climbing over people when they are sleeping, and that’s what he did the whole time. I had to make sure to use the toilet when he called the stewardess to assist him in getting to the restroom. He was out of his seat enough time to use the toilet myself and stand around stretching for a bit. He got up twice in the whole 12 hour flight. I was proud of myself to stay seated that long.

On the flight I watched four and a half movies: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Kung-Fu Panda, The Promotion, and Hancock and made it a bit through Get Smart before I turned it off.
The food on this second flight had the same two options, Korean or western. Well clearly one would think that I learned my lesson with my first Korean breakfast, but I hadn’t, I took the Korean lunch. This wasn’t as bad; we got noodle soup, but it was extremely seaweed salty. The not so great part was the bitter/sour side dish, which of the pieces items, I only ate one.
So after those first two experiences with Korean Airways Korean dishes, you think I would take the western dinner. Nope. For dinner I chose Korean again, and I got a rice dish. Again, didn’t like it, and the dessert was hard for me to eat as well. Oh well. I may not have liked these foods much, but I was glad to taste Korean food (apart from the Korean BBQs you find in the US) regardless.

On the whole, since I left Singapore until I landed in Newark; I think I slept maybe a total of 4 hours. But never once did I really feel tired.

We landed in Atlanta and I immigrated. No issues. Was upset not to get a stamp for entering America, but policy is policy. The bag management system was easy. I picked up my bags, and didn’t have to go to any counters to check them back in, just put them on a second carousel after going through customs. I waited for fifteen minutes to get my knife, but it never came out of the baggage claim. Thought it was gone forever. Asked a man if there was any other places it would come out and he advised me to check oversized baggage claim. He was right, there it was. My little knife buried amongst all the big baggage.

Being back in America after one year was not as shocking as people claim it to be. I was happy to walk through the airport and hear southern accents again, and see the clothing. I was excited; nervous only a bit. I was hungry in the airport, and since the flight to Newark didn’t have any special food, I finally ate the peanuts I had picked up in Bangkok; the entire bag in the Atlanta airport. Actually, reflecting on the whole time I was in the airport, I did feel a bit uneasy at first being back in America. It’s been so long, and I felt like I stood out, for no reason at all. Again I was nervous, but not as emotional as I thought I would be. It was petty incredible when we finally flew into American airspace over Washington state. I was beaming then. Later touching down on American soil was pretty cool too.

The flight to Newark seemed short and quick. I was glad to land. To my surprise, when I walked out of the gate, my sister Sandee was standing there. My first thought was, “What is she doing past security?” Then I realized that she should be at the University of Florida. She told me she flew up just for this weekend to see me, first time in 15 months. It was so great ot see her. I had no clue she would be there. Together we walked through the terminal and she told me how she asked security if she could go to the gate to pick up her “little brother”, but my whole family is sure she just got by on good looks. At the other end of the terminal we met our parents. We all hugged, picked up my bags, and walked out of the airport to the car.

On the way home we got Subway.