Friday, November 1, 2013

Singapore

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We learned through the cruiser’s grapevine that you don’t want to stay in Indonesia even one day past your cruising permit’s expiration.  However, the new marina where we had luckily booked a berth couldn’t get us in until a day after our cruising permit expired but as our luck would have it, we were able to secure a reservation for a berth at the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club for the one night.
 

Leaving the 5-star luxury resort on Bintan Island, which was our last stop in the Sail Indonesia Rally, we made our way due west in the early morning.  The water was flat calm and the wind nonexistent, as it usually is this close to the equator – calm enough that I was able to make a batch of banana nut muffins while we were underway.  By late morning, we were approaching our way point where we would make a hard right turn in an attempt to cross the heavy freighter traffic at a right angle.  Singapore is the second busiest shipping port in the world (Shanghai is the busiest) and a 200- to 300-meter long freighter passes every 12 minutes, some just poking along and some at a good clip.  Our chart plotter confirmed a never-ending trail of ships but even though we hadn’t quite made it to our right-turn waypoint, we saw a break in the thick traffic and made a dash to cross the Vessel Traffic Separation lanes.  The 2-mile wide crossing went pretty well but we still had to alter our course several times as we approached Singapore’s shores but, fortunately, it wasn’t the white-knuckle experience that we had been anticipating.


No sooner had we arrived in the Western Anchorage and hailed Immigration on the VHF radio when their launch approached us.  We handed over all our documents and prepared ourselves to wait for the next couple of hours for them to process our paper work but a mere half hour later, they returned the completed forms to us and welcomed us to Singapore.  With our big yellow Quarantine flag lowered and the Singapore courtesy flag hoisted in it’s place, we steamed our way through the hundreds of ships in the anchorage.  The yacht club was still about 10 miles to the west and we got a good view of the coast line as we made our way there – hundreds of 30- and 40-storey apartment buildings, like so many blades of fescue in a pasture.  The huge cranes that unload the containers from the ships were lined up for miles and all of them seemed to be in operation simultaneously.  The refineries on Jurong Island seemed to be crowded right next to each other, their tall stacks belching smoke.

We pulled Rutea into her assigned slip at the yacht club and I was immediately disappointed.  I had been expecting better maintained docks but these appeared to be somewhat neglected, with blades of grass growing up through the wood that separates the concrete.  Once I was in the dock master’s office, I learned that if I wanted to move to the marina where we had our reservation, we would have to apply for a cruising permit.  Before I could apply for a cruising permit, I would have to take and pass a proficiency exam.  It wasn’t a quick decision but the cheap rate to stay at the yacht club helped.  The other thing that I didn’t like is that the yacht club is right next to the terminal that shuttles crew out to the freighters.  A constant stream of 50-foot launches, their big, throaty diesels rumbling, churn up the water so that even the big boats at the club’s docks roll badly.  Shortly after we arrived, Rutea took such a bad roll that it pulled her plastic dock step (which was tethered to her lifeline) into the water and then when she rolled back the other direction, it smashed the puny folding step into pieces against the dock.  To be fair, though, the rest of the club’s amenities are very nicely appointed, modern and even luxurious.  Two dining options (one casual, one more formal), a new gym with all the latest equipment (they even provide thick, white towels with RSYC embroidered in large, blue letters), a chart room with an extensive collection of navigational charts and a very well air conditioned bar that has a pool table.  There is even a Jackpot Room, which is lined with slot and video poker machines but as a guest we don’t have access to it.


After being in Indonesia for three months, I was surprised at how quickly we adapted to being in a First World country again.  In no time we had figured out how to ride the MRT, Singapore’s extensive underground railway system that always seems to be crowded.  English is the official language of Singapore but everything on the buses and trains is translated into Tamil, Mandarin Chinese and Malay.  Another big difference between Singapore and Indonesia is the cost of living:  Although the trains, buses and taxis are pretty reasonable, the cost of almost everything else appears to be stratospheric.  One of the most disconcerting is the cost of beer because a cold 650ml Bintang would be around 4,000 Indonesian rupiah (US$3.50) in a more upscale restaurant and a much smaller beer would set you back about $12 Singapore dollars (US$10) in a casual eatery.  Of course, the most obvious difference between the two countries is that Singapore is ultra-modern while a substantial percentage of Indonesia’s population still lives a near-subsistence life style.

Since the British took control over Singapore in 1819, they set up communities for the Chinese and the Indians that they imported to be indentured labor (the British lost control over Singapore in 1941 when they were humiliated by the Japanese).  Today, these two cultures retain their traditions, foods and culture in sprawling areas that draw millions of tourists.  There’s even an Arab quarter where one night we had a spectacular Mediterranean dinner.  The sights and sounds of each area are intoxicating.

The ethnic neighborhoods notwithstanding, the other ubiquitous feature that heavily populates Singapore are the shopping malls.  They’re everywhere.  Most of them are very upscale but almost all of them have a similar layout; meaning that you can always find a food court with not-so-expensive fare.  With only anecdotal evidence from our casual observations, Singaporeans love to shop and the malls are crowded from early in the morning to late at night.

When you’re visiting as many countries as we are, its easy to fill up your passport and who wants to be denied entrance into a country because there’s no room in your passport for their stamp?  Both Ruthie and Corie’s passports were almost completely full so they made appointments at the US Embassy in Singapore to have pages added.  Embassy Row in Singapore is on a busy, tree-lined street and the US Embassy is in between the Australian and the British.  It’s a huge, imposing building with tall fences, hundreds of closed circuit TV cameras and signs warning you not to take any photographs.  We had to pass through two security checks and cell phones weren’t allowed inside.  The people that worked there were friendly, though, and even went out of their way to help us out.



From the embassy it was a short walk to Singapore’s Botanical Gardens.  It was a good thing that the walk was short as it was already approaching noon and it was swelteringly hot.  My polo shirt was soaked by the time we got there but I was completely dazzled by the collection of stunning plant life in this extremely well-cared-for, 53-hectare park.  The main highlight of this highlight was the National Orchid Garden, where unbelievable flowers had the most intense colors I’ve seen anywhere.  We wound up walking the entire length of the park before we came to the MRT station, where it’s air conditioning was a welcomed oasis.  Our first trip to Chinatown had been too short so we decided to head back there for a late lunch.

On tripadvisor.com, usually the top restaurant pick for a city or area is some very expensive, albeit very good, place that we can’t afford.  Not so for Chinatown in Singapore.  The top pick there is for the Hawker Stands, where steaming trays of strange and delicious-looking food are lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, served mostly for take away but there are often a few plastic tables where a meal can be enjoyed as long as things like napkins aren’t important to you.  One of Singapore’s typical afternoon thunderstorms was dumping millions of gallons of water from the sky, punctuating it with sharp, loud claps of lightning and thunder as we chose a place to eat.  Unfortunately, that particular string of Hawker Stands didn’t attract our attention so we wound up a nice pub instead, which allowed us to have a beer but also spend about ten times as much as we would have if we hadn’t been so picky.

Our stay in Singapore is going to be very short.  Rutea badly needs to be hauled out of the water for some repairs and maintenance and the yard we’ve chosen in Malaysia has to haul us out before the 10th of November and it’s still 300 miles away.  We plan to be back underway on the 3rd.

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