MacRitchie Reservoir & Sentosa Island, Singapore

The long-tailed macaque! Click here for more photos from Singapore.

May 16-17, 2009

"Oh, look!" my friend said. "We can do this cool tree top walk through the Singapore nature reserve!"

"Does this mean we will essentially be hiking through the rainforest?" I replied.


"Well. Just so long as we know what we're doing."

I was not aware, however, that this would turn into a 12-kilometer walk along occasionally very rough trails in 95-degree heat and dripping humidity. I do not think I will be doing further hikes through the rainforest anytime soon. We went with a pair of brothers from Yorkshire that we met in our hostel, however, and despite the rather miserable conditions we had a great time. The MacRitchie Reservoir occupies a huge area of land within Singapore's already small island, and we ended up completely circumnavigating (on foot!) the lower reservoir. The tree top walk, though brief, really was tremendously fun - the trees are so thick below you can't even see the ground. On our hike we even glimpsed a troop of long-tailed macaques, the monkeys native to Singapore, and heard them rustling in the trees repeatedly.

It's completely free to enter and walk the trails of the MacRitchie Reservoir, and I think the tree-top walk on its own is entirely worth it. Just be prepared for some serious hiking in sweltering conditions - a taxi can take you within 2 km of the walk, but once you enter the bridge it's one-way and the only way out of the reserve is another 5-6 km hike, most of it along a boardwalk. (Except, of course, when the trail becomes swamped in mud or encounters steep rocky inclines. Then you're on your own.) The second half of the hike actually runs along a fancy golf course for a time, so you get to see Singapore's finest citizens out practicing their drives, looking completely cool and comfortable, while you are swimming in sweat and limping from blisters. It's a fun comparison, I assure you.

The view from Sentosa Island

For our final full day in Singapore (before heading off on our overnight trip to Malaysia) we decided to check out Sentosa Island. My friend E warned us against this - "It's very touristy, the whole island is basically a resort" - but after several days of first walking around the sweltering city and then the sweltering rainforest, we decided a beach resort was exactly what we wanted. It's easy to get there - just take the metro to HarbourFront, and from there you can reach the island by bus, monorail or cable car (glass-bottomed and not). The bus and monorail each cost $3 SNG (the cost of getting on the island) while the cable cars cost significantly more.

Upon stepping off the bus we did indeed find ourselves in one huge theme park, essentially - all the careful landscaping and artfully designed walks strongly reminded me of
Atlantis in the Bahamas. Or perhaps even Disney World, as the island even has a ride - the luge! It is quite silly but ridiculously fun - for $11SNG you take a ski lift over the island then ride a low wheeled cart down a course, speeding or gliding as you like. Monica merrily swerved all over the course, cackling all the way. I was a more sedate driver.

Our theme-park ride accomplished we headed for the beach, where I was rather disappointed. I know Singapore is a massive hub for shipping traffic, of course, but I had no idea their resort beaches would essentially look onto a major shipping lane. They'd built mini-islands facing the beaches (which were created with sand imported from Indonesia, E tells me) in order to improve the view, but they couldn't hide the fact that some freighters were anchored just offshore. It was not encouraging me to swim, and the cloudy water speckled with debris didn't help. So Monica swam while I lounged on the beach and read a book, and we were both happy. Afterward we watched the sunset over the shipping channel choked with vessels - and with all the bobbing lights, it was quite the beautiful sight.

Geylang, Singapore

Durian fruit. Click here for more photos from Singapore.

May 14-20, 2009

Thus far Singapore is the hottest, most humid country I have ever encountered (and as of this writing I've already been to Malaysia and Vietnam). Coming after cool autumnal Australia, the heat was brutal. The first couple days it almost felt like moving through water, the air was so heavy. We kept ducking into air-conditioned restaurants and shops just for some relief.

Since Singapore is essentially one huge shopping mall, luckily we were never far from a/c. A good Singaporean friend of mine from college used to joke about her country and its shopping centers, and she really wasn't kidding. It felt like everywhere we turned we found ourselves in another mall - gorgeous, gleaming, and frigidly blasted with a/c. And spotless, of course. Singapore is truly as clean as advertised. Not that we never saw litter, but all the sidewalks and pedestrian walkways were so well designed, all the public areas so beautifully laid out and maintained, an aura of glittering cleanliness seems to permanently hover over the city.

Our hostel, 98SG, was superbly located less than 100 feet from the Aljunied subway station, and it was wonderfully easy to get into the city center and explore. (I do so love a well-functioning metro system.) Aljunied serves the Geylang neighborhood, which my friend laughingly informed us was the red light district - after we'd already booked our hostel, of course. (I was rather startled to discover that Singapore
has a red light district, with its wholesome, hardworking, no gum-chewing image - though with its history of pirates, this should really be no surprise.) Geylang turned out to be a great place to stay in - the hostel itself was located at the quiet end of a street, and the rest of the area is filled with Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants, brilliant red lanterns, and blazing neon signs.

We went out one evening with my friend E and a couple of her friends for a sampling of Taiwanese food. With rapid Mandarin they helped us order steamed and fried pork dumplings, bean curd custard, fried spring onion pancake, and yu tiao, the fried dough to be eaten with the custard. (As a former British colony, Singapore's primary language is English, though the island population is largely made up of ethnic Chinese, Indians and Maylay.) All was scrumptious except for the custard, which I found rather sour. Afterward we visited a fruit stand for durian. Durian is a large fruit - bigger than a coconut - studded with extraordinarily hard and sharp spikes. The fruit seller had to handle them with thick gloves, and we were informed that people have actually died when these fruits fall out of the trees and land on them. Harvesters have to wear helmets. I had no idea fruit could be so dangerous.

E. & friends enjoying their durian

Amusingly, the day before we had wondered over some signs on the bus: no smoking, no food or drink, no . . . strange spiky fruit? Why does it get its own category? Besides its prickliness durian is also known for its strong odor and unusual taste - which appeals to some and revolts others, apparently. Hence the ban on carrying them on public transportation. With swift whacks of the knife the fruit seller carved our durian into sections, of which only the spongy, yellow flesh around the pits is consumed. There's no doubt, durian is a strange fruit. Monica and I took tentative tastes . . . and promptly decided that was enough. It's the texture that's so off-putting - it reminded me of soft tuna fish more than anything else, except somehow sickly sweet. Not very appealing to American tastes. E and the others happily finished off every pit, however - and then washed their hands at the fruit stand's sink to get rid of the durian odor. I have never yet encountered another fruit that required so much effort to hide the fact that you had eaten it.

Upon leaving the stand we were overjoyed to hear E and her friends complaining of the heat. "We thought it only affected us silly foreigners!" I said. "Oh, no!" said E's friend. "We're always hot! Why do you think we have so many indoor shopping malls?" Indeed. Singapore: where shopping - and air conditioning - reign supreme.

Sydney, again

Lifeguard's surfboard, Manly beach. Click here for more photos from Australia

May 12, 2009

The most surprising fact I have learned about Sydney: it is hilly. And I mean very,
very hilly. I don't quite know what I was expecting, but steep hills were definitely not on the list. The whole city is ranged along the bays lining the long, twisting harbor, and the land instantly bumps up into higher and higher hills from the waterfront, dotted with buildings. The harbor mouth letting onto the Pacific is marked by spectacular sheer cliffs. I find it very reminiscent of Mediterranean Europe - especially Croatia - or western Mexico. Either way my legs have definitely felt the effects of so much uphill walking. I do love how the city is spread out over so many different levels, though - with all sorts of public terraces and surprise stairways to other streets. It makes for a very dynamic, architecturally interesting city. Sydney is also much more tropical than I expected. There are palm trees all over the place! I knew it had a mild climate but I didn't know it was that mild.

I am continually amused by how many British place names we have encountered, especially after my summer in London. Thus far we've seen
Chiswick Gardens, Piccadilly Gardens (actually an apartment building), Kings Cross (a train station, of course), Paddington (a large neighborhood south of the harbor), Liverpool Street, and the Brighton Hotel for backpackers in Manly, a beachfront neighborhood on the north side of the harbor. And a few days ago we wandered through Hyde Park in the center of the city.

Sprinkled throughout, however, are names that could only be Australian (and curiously all start with "wool"): Woollahra, Woolooware, and my personal favorite, Woolloomooloo. Can you imagine saying you're from Woolloomooloo? I would move to Sydney just for that.

Sydney, Australia

May 7-14, 2009

I am in Australia! It is tremendously exciting. I am trying to upload some photos from an internet cafe but it is being very slow. I do love Sydney. It is well into autumn here - we walk through piles of fallen leaves in the outer neighborhoods - but the temperature is gorgeous. It's been sunny and in the high 60s ever since we got here, dipping into the 50s at night. When we return the end of June the lowest it should get is the 40s. Very nice; I could live with a winter like this!

The city is beautifully laid out along the waterfront, and although the transportation system cannot compete with London (nothing can, I suppose. Maybe Tokyo; I am eager to get back there and see what I remember) it hasn't been too difficult to get around. Of course we visited the Opera House and Harbour Bridge first thing. It is incredible to see such world-famous landmarks in person after seeing them so often in books and on TV. I am still a little incredulous just that I'm here, in the Southern Hemisphere, but I'm looking forward to seeing more of Sydney.

American Universities

April 7-23, 2009
Missouri, New York, Boston, Chicago, Maryland

I have a bit more of an excuse for not having this post ready, as I returned from my trips just over a week ago and ever since it's been a madhouse of packing, moving out, and getting ready for Asia & Australia. But I did indeed visit the campuses of the University of Missouri, Columbia, Boston University, Northwestern, and the University of Maryland, all of which accepted me into their journalism graduate programs. I'd been struggling on how to choose before, but in the end it was easy: Maryland, already my favorite, offered me a wonderful fellowship. And that was that! I am thrilled to attend graduate school on such a gorgeous campus. Every single building looks the same as the Journalism one: red brick with white columns. So Southern! It makes me want to swan around in a hoop skirt.

Exuma Islands, Bahamas

February 19-March 4, 2009

How has the time gotten away from me?? Two months later and I still do not have this post up. That is terrible. I promise a full write-up of my annual Bahamas visit when I return from Australia and Asia, but for now my photos will have to suffice.