I don’t have too much to say about Singapore at this point. I have been working the whole time I have been here, and my physical location in town is fairly far from anything fun to do so my days here have been (and look likely to continue to be) quite sterile and travel-neutral. You know, that funny thing that happens when every hotel room looks the same and it is hard to tell where you are at all. The fact that the electrical outlets are British-style makes it even harder to remember where I am, and the food is similar to the sorts of things I normally eat (the vegetarian diet being easiest when lots of Thai and Indian cuisine are included). I guess this is the good thing about expat life; one is quite easily adaptable to new surroundings when travelling. Living in an unfamiliar country makes it easier to travel to even less familiar territories.
There are thus two things that are unique to my Asian travel experience, both of which are making me miserable, and either of which I would really love to be able to change but suspect I am stuck with.
- Cold showers. Yes, when you step outside it feels like a sauna, but when I wake up stiff in my tiny (single) hard bed with only one pillow, I really could use a nice warm stream of water on my shoulders.
- The utter absence of coffee. I would literally pay ten times market price (maybe even more) for a Starbucks latte this morning!
Today is day two of my four full days here, then another travel day and back ‘home’ to the UK. I can’t wait; this world tour is finding me weary. Of course, this is only leg 2/3 and the UK stay will be only around 24 hours this time before the last leg of the trip, Italy. At least I can just about guarantee that I will be able to find good coffee there!
Continuing with my trans-continental adventures…
Following train adventures parts 1 and 2, I slept through most of the long 12 hour flight from London to Singapore. (Note: I used to be one of those people who claimed that I couldn’t sleep on airplanes. In reality, it turns out that when younger I was simply never sufficiently overworked or overtired to sleep on airplanes. I believe I caught a full eight hours last night and in fact missed the distribution of Singapore immigration paperwork and had to be nudged when my vegetarian breakfast was delivered!) Once I landed in Singapore I was really hoping for an easy coast in to the finish line, a.k.a. a quick and straightforward cab ride to my final destination. That was simply not to be.
I perhaps should have seen the danger coming and asked the airport cab coordinator for someone else when the cab driver looked so long and hard at the address and map I had with full instructions on where I was going. I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had done so! The cabbie pulled out of the taxi stand and drove about a mile before pulling over on the side of the road, turning on the flashers and asking me if he could look at that map again. We sat there quite a while, my starting to really regret being so complacent back at the airport taxi stand, as I watched the meter tick over S$0.40. Little did I know that this was the easy part of the trip. Once the cab driver started actually driving, the experience became less and less eye-rolling amusing and more and more terrifying. And strangely unlike a typical bad taxi experience.
My previous record for fear level in a taxi was on the island of Crete when dealing with a cab driver who thought he was an Indy racer. At least he was in full control of the car and paying attention to the road. When he crossed over the center line on the road it was intentional, usually associated with cutting a curve short. Today’s driver was (a) all over the road, drifting in and out of lanes and mostly driving along the centerline between two lanes on a three lane interstate-style freeway (as my high school friends would have said, easy, Pac-man!) (b) driving at about half the speed of anyone else on the road, and (c) kept doing things that did not involve driving, including picking up some small chapstick-sized tube of something and sniffing it, and even stranger, smoothing down what little hair he had. Part (c) was bad, but the driving-down-no-lane-at-half-speed while other taxis and vehicles of all sorts were flying by was just plain strange. And oh yeah, he did not actually appear to know how to drive a stick shift and I was sure at one point he was going to kill the engine when he slowed down to less than 30 kph and did not take the thing out of fifth. Of course, he spoke very little English, I was not sure I could get across to him in any nonconfrontational way a request to stay in a single lane, and I was doubly terrified that we were going to die on the road and that he was going to drive me around in circles because he did not actually know where we were going. Finally he got into the exit lane for a road that was clearly marked on my map (yay!) and proceeded to pull over at a bus shelter, asked me for the map again, and got out of the cab and started asking people at the bus shelter if they could help him find where I was going. I was still sitting in the back of the cab at this point, watching people one-by-one shaking their heads. Finally about the fourth guy he asked appeared to give the cab driver instructions and he got back in the car to drive again. After about two blocks I saw a sign for where I was going and pointed it out to the cab driver, who started laughing and saying that the guy at the bus stop had told him it was the other way. I proceeded to get the cab driver to drive me to my destination by pointing out the signs appearing with increasing frequency and large arrows. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I got out of the cab. I know that Londoners are spoiled with cab drivers who memorize maps and take tests, but I don’t think this guy could have passed a driving test in general. I hope he gets pulled over by a police man before he does actually manage to crash and kill one of his fares.
I was heading back to Heathrow airport for the next leg of my world tour. This is a journey that typically involves a train ride into London and then a tube voyage out to Heathrow where the Piccadilly line is supposed to stop. More on that in a minute; first the good train story from the trip to London.
Part 1: Good train
I sat down on the train, having pre-selected a seat that would make it easy to stash my suitcase next to me. Even though the train was not full, a woman came and sat across from me (even more surprising given that she was then facing backwards, although perhaps that bothers others less than I!). She smiled, which was a bit unusual (see my favorite book on English behavior where Kate Fox talks about how people do not make eye contact or talk to each other on trains) and proceeded to make a few phone calls on her mobile. I was not terribly fussed, although she stopped at one point and looked over at me and apologized for the rudeness of her behavior in using her phone. I just laughed and said “Don’t worry, I’m American and totally unfazed by such things.” She replied, “I’m still trying not to be too annoying with the cell phone!” It was immediately clear from this exchange and her accent that she was not a native of England. Well, that explained the eye contact and the smile, this was another person who was not from around here. It turned out we had a lot more in common than just non-Englishness, and we proceeded to have the most amazing conversation the entire rest of the way to London. I gave her my card and have already had an email from her. So sometimes life has some pleasant surprises for you in the form of an unexpectedly pleasant chance meeting on a train, and the opportunity to make a new friend when you least expect it.
Part 2: Bad train
We now move on to the less pleasant part of my trip to Heathrow. I managed to get the tube across town towards Heathrow and was sitting on the increasingly-emptying Piccadilly line train as it rumbled towards Zone 6 and my final destination. Now last week when I had made this trip for the US leg of my world tour, there had been some interesting confusion concerning the Heathrow Terminal 4 station; an announcement had come over the intercom asking us to get off at Hatton Cross and wait for another train to Terminal 4 as this one would only stop at Terminals 1-2-3. We had all disembarked only to be told that that train would stop at Terminal 4 anyways and to get back on.
So it was not without some trepidation that I was waiting for instructions as we approached the end of the line on this particular trip. I will make what could be a very long story as short as possible. The tube did not stop at Hatton Cross. The tube did not stop at Heathrow Terminal 4. There were no announcements, there were no instructions, no signs, nothing posted. This was one of those clear cases where you were supposed to know ahead of time the answer and only those “in the know” or willing to beg for help from London Underground staff were ever going to find their way to their final destinations. Now I know how it works and could do it again in a pinch; there is a separate train line, a service as part of the “Heathrow Express,” that will take you free to terminal 4. The bad news is that the trains run only every 15 minutes and I just missed one (finally having located it) and it is not very efficiently designed: imagine a train full of people with luggage trying to get up to the Heathrow departures area on 4 small elevators—thus in discrete bursts instead of something continuous and more efficient like an escalator. Bottom line: if the Piccadilly line had been stopping at terminal 4, I would have been there at the airport with 3 hours before the trans-continental flight. With the transit adventures, I barely got my bags checked in 90 minutes before the flight was due to leave. That’s an hour and a half trying to get a reasonably short distance; I might have been able to walk there faster than I eventually got there with this other train system. Of course, now I know how to use the Heathrow Express, and given the fun of this adventure and the possibility for future adventures, I might well be able to use this information in the future!
I have returned briefly to the UK after my trip back to America and before my next adventure. (I’m heading to Asia for the first time and am very excited!) It was fun to be in the US and yet it was quite clearly no longer home to me. Amazing how these things change so quickly.
My flight to London was reasonably uneventful but my tube-and-train rides home from the airport were slightly more interesting. I saw on this trip two people (one each on the tube and train) with a common feature that I don’t recall seeing much in the US: they were missing most of their teeth. One was a medium-aged man, the other a young woman. In both cases there were no more than 2-3 of the front 8 (top and bottom) teeth present.
I recall seeing advertisements on the BBC America channel that included some comical line about Americans’ dim view of English dentistry practices, but I have to admit I had not thought too much about it since arriving here in the UK. I do admit I have seen some funky teeth in the UK, and occasionally have noted a smile that might not be so bold and open-lipped in the US. However, these two cases were far more noticeable for the near-complete absence of teeth–when faced with a couple of gap-toothed grins on reasonably young people, it’s hard not to notice and worry.
Americans are teased about their obsession with physical appearance, and it’s true that dental work seems to have been the most recent fad in clinical cosmetic procedures. I do not advocate “Extreme Makeover“-style veneers and I am definitely not in favor of bleaching teeth (it does very bad things to the integrity of tooth enamel!). I dislike obsession with appearance for the sake of appearance and am more interested in healthful tooth-brushing practices than perfect Hollywood smiles. However, I would definitely advocate seeking dental intervention in the absence of more than 50 % of one’s visible dentition.
I was sitting with my American friends (the ones who used to live in London) in a restaurant waiting for our pizza. Overheard at the next table:
- “I’m so hungry I could eat a sandwich from a gas station”
This was a father to his kids. See, it’s not just me–triangle boxed sandwiches really are the last resort!
Day two of the conference did bring some sandwiches, but they were American sandwiches, not English sandwiches. That makes all the difference. See, the American sandwich lunch had a platter of rolls already sliced in half, bowls of mayo and mustard, trays of meats, cheeses, and additional toppings (lettuce, tomato) so you could build your own. I therefore could quite happily make a fully-edible and fresh 3-cheese sandwich with lettuce and a dab of mayo. English sandwiches, on the other hand, are pre-made, on thin-sliced bread instead of rolls, and are cut into little triangles. My American friends here who lived in London quite insightfully called them “7-11 Sandwiches” since a convenience store or gas station is the only place in the US you would see such things. We have been telling other Americans about the English 7-11 sandwiches all week and they can hardly believe it, especially when we note the rows of sandwiches with not-cheap ingredients at up-market stores but still in the 7-11 style. So there we have it, I officially only dislike English sandwiches. I’m starting to feel slightly sorry that I will have to return to the UK and their sandwich stores tomorrow.
Today I was at my first of four days at a conference back in the US. We arrived and got checked in, got our dorky nametags and conference bags and realized it was not too long before lunch. Once the buffet lunch was set up, I sort of stood back, afraid of what would be found. I have gotten so used to the dreaded UK sandwich platter for working lunches that I had actually forgotten that I am back in America. There was not a sandwich in sight. The buffet was full of lovely things to eat; potstickers, springrolls, satay, cheese and crackers, vegetables and dips, fruit platters. I had a wonderful lunch and look forward to three more days of this conference.
I am certainly enjoying a little American shopping at familiar and well-loved stores. It is quite strange to see the “Boots” section in Target–I had not realized the English drugstore/chemist was considered such a trendy brand! I don’t actually buy enough within this (beauty cremes, etc.) genre to tell how the prices compared with my local UK Boots store. I also got to go grocery shopping at another US favorite, Whole Foods. I really miss this store–the produce is amazing. I really does just feel nice to wander around and see so much that is familiar.
I had forgotten (already!) the funny feature of American stores compared with stores in the UK, and this is an appropriate comment for either Target or Whole Foods. The baseline sizes that things come in are just so much bigger in the US. I’m not suggesting I could live with US sizes in the UK; my refrigerator in England is the size of an American dormitory fridge and nowhere near the size of a normal US fridge-freezer. And of course my little UK dorm fridge essentially has no freezer. My British grocery store has a minimal frozen foods section to match. But more importantly, there is absolutely no storage space built into my UK apartment. There are no closets, there are hardly even cupboards in the kitchen. Everything sits out in plain site and thus I feel as though I am living in a cluttered mess. There is nowhere for me to store a large bottle of shampoo if I bought one, and a multi-pack of paper products that are not needed right this second would have to sit out on the counter along with everything else.
I sit writing this in the large, spacious kitchen in my friends’ house. There are wall to wall cupboards, a walk-in pantry, and closets everywhere. So we have a chicken- and- egg problem on our hands: did American closets evolve to fit the size of packaging in US stores, or did the opposite happen? Would we first expect to see change in UK closet space or on the shelves at Sainsbury’s if the UK were to follow a similar pattern?
My flight from England to the US yesterday was quite uneventful, but it reminded me of a fascinating travel story from my sister’s US-to-UK trip about six weeks ago. I have never seen anything even remotely this dramatic happen on an airplane.
Although I’m in the US, I’m still checking the news in the UK… and finding that English humor is one of my favorite things about England. I certainly appreciate whoever it was at the BBC website who came up with this one: