Sunday, 29 July 2012

Home again

Saturday 28 July

When we check in our hold luggage, my case and Reg's rucksack are only just under the 23 kilograms allowed - the luggage weight-hook did it's job.   We forget though to put the weight-hook back in the suitcase, and it turns up as a strange item in our hand luggage in the x-ray machine - because of the hook.  When the security official sees what it is, she fortunately doesn't confiscate it.

The flight is good, and much more comfortable by Qatar airlines than our flights to and from South Africa last November by British Airways.  This time there is room to stretch out our legs under the seat in front which is much better for Reg's long legs and my knees!

Our Qatar journey actually involves 2 flights, as we stop over in Doha for a couple of hours. When we arrive at Heathrow, at about 7.00 am British time, our body clocks tell us it's 2.00 am, as Singapore is 7 hours ahead of UK.

Our daughter Elaine and her boyfriend Jake are waiting for us at the barrier as we come into the arrivals hall, with a big poster saying "Welcome to the UK, Mum and Dad".  Elaine hugs her Dad, then it's my turn, and I shed a few tears.  It's good to be back on English soil, but a strange feeling.

Elaine says we have to text George and Marianne, our son and his fiancee, to tell them we're on our way down the M4.  When we get home , there are "Welcome home" banners on the front door and window, and George and Marianne are there to greet us.  Big hugs all round, then George cooks us a fry up brunch.  They've brought all the food with them - eggs, bacon, sausages and mushrooms.  It's lovely to catch up on everyone's news.

"How does it feel to be home?  Did you enjoy your trip?"

Yes, we had a wonderful trip, and learned a lot about ourselves in the process, as well as about other countries and cultures.  But how does it feel to be home?

Of course its fantastic to be home, after such a long time away, and to be back in the bosom of our family.  Elaine's done a brilliant job looking after the house, sifting through our post as we asked her to, and opening  anything important.  George has mowed the lawns, quite a task when you're working and live some distance away and have your own house to see to.  Jake and Marianne have helped too.  We're looking forward to getting back in touch with our friends, who've been so supportive of our trip and many of whom have had Elaine around for a meal or two while we've been away!   I'll be glad, too, to be able to worship regularly with others, and to be part of a Christian church community once again.

Being home though is like being in another world, which of course it is really.  It's almost too much to take in all at once, and not helped by the long flight and feeling jet-lagged already.  Reg and I both know it will probably take at least a  couple of weeks to adjust, so we need to take it slowly.  We need to gradually weave ourselves back in to our "normal" life.  Reg has to readjust to the things he enjoys doing, plus the jobs that  needs doing! :-)  I'll have to get back into my studying, and the things I enjoy doing, interwoven with the things I don't enjoy so much but which have to be done in a house.  The things people normally do.

When you're travelling and living out of a suitcase. although of course you have luggage, you have none of the physical "baggage" with which we Westerners surround ourselves at home.  No furniture of furnishings (except those in our hotel or hostel, which aren't ours), no extraneous personal effects, some of which mean a lot to us because they hold precious memories, some we feel we couldn't manage without, and some we should have got rid of years ago.  I think of the many people in South East Asia who live in poverty, some of whom literally have their roll up mats to sleep on, and their cooking utensils, their clothing, and very little else.  Reg and I live a very privileged life.

It's great that we have 3 weddings to look forward to in September and October - not least our son George's and Marianne's wedding.  I'll enjoy my sister Heather and I getting together to make the wedding cake.

One of the essential items we took with us on our trip, for me, was Reg's little notebook computer.  We've been able to keep in touch with family and friends via email, and importantly, for me, it's enabled me to write this blog.  Reg has faithfully "proof-listened" to every blog I've written, putting me right if he's spotted a factual error, or adding a comment,  or mentioning something I've forgotten.  The blog has been a part of both of us for the whole of the trip, giving our journey extra meaning, and enabling us to record precious memories.  I'm astonished to read that over the weeks, people in several different countries have been reading it - the statistics on my blog tell me that altogether there have been 8,975 pageviews!

This is my last blogpost (I think!).  I'd like to thank all those who've dipped into the blog, sent us comments and emails, encouraging us, and also commiserating with us when things have gone wrong.  Those who are close to us know that, because of illness and family circumstances, there's no way 7 years ago that we could ever have envisaged being able to undertake this epic journey, all the way from Bristol to Singapore, by train.

How thankful we are for our blessings.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Last Day in Singapore - and of our trip

Friday 27 July

Before our last breakfast in Singapore, we fiddle around with the luggage for one last time (thank goodness for the weight hook!) before putting all our bags in the hotel storage room, and checking out.

We're a bit sentimental and reflective this morning.

Are you excited about going home now?” I ask Reg. When I asked him earlier in the week, his answer was, “Not really. I love travelling. I love feeling the warm sun on me every time I go out.”

Today Reg feels the same – he says he's in no hurry to go home, but there's a twinkle in his eye and a big smile on his face. I think, like me, he's really looking forward to seeing our family and friends again. And to going cycling. I think it will probably take us a while though to readjust to normal life.

We walk the short distance to the recently renovated National Museum of Singapore. Our young Singaporian friends have recommended we visit it. Right next to the museum is a beautiful white Christian church, which has obviously survived from Singapore's Colonial days (as has the beautiful architecture of the National Museum, despite having been given a revamp.) Outside the lovely church is a huge placard, with a photo of the church and its surroundings taken probably 50 years ago, judging by the old bus in the photo. Over the photo are the words, in large letters,

"Some things are always changing, but Jesus, thankfully, remains the same."

I like it.

We make our way into the museum and once again we get a reduced rate for being over 60! Though the young man on the desk says, smiling,

Are you sure you two are over 60?”

I could have leapt over the counter and kissed him, but my knees wouldn't let me.

We spend a couple of hours in the museum, after which we are “all museum'd out.” There's an amazing exhibition of Ukrainian gold (on loan to Singapore), with items dating back to several centuries BCE. Most of the exhibits are in exceptionally good condition, as they've been found in burial tombs.

I'm really interested to see part of the museum which shows the Colonial period. There's a tongue-in-cheek video about how Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles snatched Singapore from the hands of the Sultan, and colonised it for the British. It's a non-malicious video, but we're left in no doubt that, from where Singapore's sitting, we British came and took what wasn't ours.

There's some fascinating memorabilia in the museum, and, as you would expect from modern, vibrant, innovative Singapore, the history of Singapore is portrayed with numerous special video, sound and photographic effects.  It's different, anyway.

There's one last thing I really want to do before I leave Singapore – and that is go to Orchard Road and visit C K Tang's (now called simply Tangs) – I remember it used to have a stunning collection of expensive Chinese artefacts for sale, and I'd love to take a look.

We need to catch a bus to Tangs from the museum; at the bus stop a Chinese lady asks if she can help us. She's going the same way as us. On the bus she asks where we're from, and tells us that 40 years ago she worked for the RAF and the Australian Air Force. I tell her my father worked for the British Ministry of Defence and that I lived here for 3 years, 40 years ago.

So many changes,” she says wistfully. “You probably don't recognise anything now.”

It's like being in a completely different country,” I tell her. “Though we did go up the Bukit Timah yesterday and I found my old house. The huge monsoon drain is still there, running between the dual carriageway.”

The lady nods and smiles, perhaps glad to meet a foreigner who knew the old Singapore.

We get off the bus and find a foodhall where we can have Asian food – being in the heart of a modern shopping complex, the food is nothing like the delicious meal we had with our Singaporean friends on Tuesday evening, but it's nice to avoid the McDonald's, Pizza Hut and KFC which are in the same shopping mall.

There's huge renovation works taking place outside what is now “Tangs”. There are photos outside showing how Tangs has changed over the years; I point to one taken in the 1980's. Although I left Singapore in 1970, I'm able to say to Reg,

That's what C K Tangs looked like when I was here.”

The only thing remaining of the old C K Tangs, outside, are the 2 huge lion sculptures – they look old, and I take a photo, but to be honest I couldn't say for sure that they were the original ones.  We venture inside, and like every other department store on the ground floor, we're met by a whole floor of glitzy make-up and perfume counters. Reg wants to look at the techi stuff on another floor, so we split up for a while. I have a look on all the floors; no speciality goods here now – Tangs is just another department store.   I'm disappointed, but this is the new Singapore.

We make our way back to our hotel; it's virtually the end of our last day in Singapore, and the end of our trip. I've loved it, but unlike Reg, I'm ready to go home now. We thank the staff of our lovely hotel, and tell them it's definitely one of the best we've ever stayed in.

On the way to the airport, the taxi driver chats to us; he tells us he'll be 40 this year, so he was born a couple of years after I left Singapore the first time. I ask him if he's happy in this modern, go-ahead city.

Everything is so expensive,” he says. “it's hard for ordinary families to make ends meet. Even food is expensive to buy. For you, it's not expensive; for us, it is. The changes took place without people realising … the Prime Minister then, Lee Kuan Yew, he wanted to make a new Singapore.  I don't know how it happened, but it happened.'

The taxi driver explains that he is divorced, and, “Sadly, I don't have children,” he adds.

I'm interested in Christianity in Singapore; the driver says he is a Christian, and says there are many Christians in Singapore.

Being a taxi driver, I can't go to church much,” he says,”but I have Jesus here with me on my mobile phone.   Look.”

He shows us a video scene from the bible on his phone, which he glances at as he's driving along.

I hope you don't watch and drive,” I say, only half jokingly. He laughs, and thankfully we've now arrived at the airport.

Now for our long journey home; we will fly on Qatar airlines via Doha, in the Middle East, to Heathrow. The whole journey including stop over time of 1 – 2 hours, is 17 hours. We're due to leave Singapore at 9.30 pm. Although we're due to arrive at Heathrow at about 7.15 am, British time, it'll be 2.15 pm Singapore time. So by 5.00 pm British time, when hopefully we'll be safely in Bristol, it'll be midnight for me and Reg. Good job we haven't any plans for Saturday evening.

Friday, 27 July 2012

A trip down memory lane

Thursday 26 July

It's our penultimate day in Singapore - we fly out at 9.30 pm tomorrow.  It's another searing hot, clammy day, and we're on our way to find the first house I lived in in Singapore,  over 40 years ago; 19 Jalan Kampong Chantek.  We know from Google Earth that it's still there - or at least, that there's a property on the site of my old house.  We couldn't see the house properly on the internet because of greenery and foliage.  The 2nd house I lived in was in the British Naval Base, now of course the Singapore Naval Base, and we doubt if we'd have access there.

The concierge at our brilliant hotel - we love it here - has told us which bus to catch.  It's not an area where tourists usually go.  In fact it's now quite a posh area, with very expensive houses - I can't remember it being so when we were there, although the house we rented at the time was very nice.  I remember it as the house where, amongst other things, my 18th birthday party was held.  Mum and Dad valiantly went out for the evening, and my brothers must have stayed with friends.  The party was gatecrashed and my parents came home to a bit of a mess.  I was definitely in the doghouse.

The bus takes us along the old Bukit Timah Road - still a dual carriageway, still separated by a huge monsoon drain between the 2 sides of the road.  But I don't recognise any of the landscape, and wouldn't have had a clue where to get off the bus if it weren't for Reg's sat-nav and a helpful bus driver.
The black and yellow pick-up taxis which used to cruise the Bukit Timah road, picking up and dropping off passengers at any point along the carriageway, have long since disappeared.

Suddenly there it is!  The sign going off the Bukit Timah, saying "Jalan Kampong Chantek," (literally, "street of the pretty village").  I remember the curve of the road, and feel very strange as we walk towards my old house.  All the houses in this road have been hugely refurbished, maybe one or 2 have even been replaced - except one.  That one is not number 19, my house, but it's the same design.

"That's exactly what my house was  like," I tell Reg, as we walk up the road towards number 19.  "The shape of  the roof, the garden, everything."
I'm glad that unmodernised house was there, looking a bit dilapidated, because number 19 is completely unrecognisible from the house I remember.  It could even be a new property, but it definitely has a new roof and frontage, and the garden is completely different.  We take some photos, both of number 19 and of the unaltered dilapidated house.  I'm glad I went back though; old ghosts and all that.  I don't feel particularly disappointed that things have changed - that's life, after all.

After this trip down memory lane, we make our way by bus and tube to Little India, the Indian commercial district of Singapore.  The main street, Serangoon Road, is lined with small shops selling a huge array of goods - food, jewellery, souvenirs, clothes, watches, mobile phones, and several pawn shops - you name it, it's sold here.

'"This to me is the real Singapore, bustling with real life and ordinary people," says Reg.  I know what he means.  This area is clean enough, but it's not glitzy; it's not a "show home" kept immaculate just to look at, it's a living community.

There are several eating places and we're hungry.  We order a "butter chicken" dinner with all the trimmings.  It arrives on a huge banana leaf, and is absolutely delicious, especially accompanied by fresh lime juice.

Afterwards we make our way towards Mustaphas, the huge Indian department store which sells everything and anything.

"Are all those DVD's real  ones or copies?" I ask Reg.
"Probably real," says Reg.  After all, this isn't Cambodia, and I doubt that a store this size would get away with selling counterfeit goods.

The choice of goods is mind-boggling - think of a huge Western department store, then add all the different types of goods we saw in all the little shops we walked passed in Serangoon Road.  We split up for an hour to look around; by the time we meet up again, we're both ready to go back to our hotel.

I sleep for an hour and a half, then jiggle the luggage again a little (last night I spent the evening rearranging our luggage and weighing it with the little weight-hook we bought in China) so that I can pack the few sundry items I've bought this afternoon, without going overweight on the flight home tomorrow.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Marina Bay Sands... and the Garden by the Sea

Wednesday 25 July

We only have 3 days left in Singapore and it's difficult to prioritise what we should do, but we decide to visit the Marina Bay Sands Hotel Complex, because on its 56th floor it has a Skypark open to the general public.  At a cost of S$20, you can zip up in the lift at lightning speed and experience an amazing view of Singapore city.

The complex, developed by Las Vegas Sands, cost S$8 billion to build, including the cost of the land.  It is constructed of 3 towers, each  57 stories high, joined at the top by a boat-shaped "sky-deck".  Last night when we viewed the Singapore city night skyline from the waterfront with our Singaporian friends, Terence and Thiam Hock, this new icon building was a dominant feature, twinkling with a myriad of lights, symbolising the modern, successful, forward-looking Singapore.

The building includes the world's largest casino (which Singaporians are discouraged from using because they have to pay a S$100 entrance fee before they even think about placing a bet - foreigners don't)  and a shopping mall with exclusive glitzy shops so expensive that "ordinary people" wouldn't even venture in.   I feel sorry for the shop assistants as we walk past - I don't see a single customer in  any of the shops.  Still, I guess just one sale (a week, a day?) would justify their existence.  There are some extraordinarily rich people about, and some of them are staying in this hotel, where there's an ice skating rink and theatres amongst other attractions.

There's no doubt that the view from the sky-deck is spectacular,  We wander about, taking photographs like everyone else.  At this point, I just want to detail a conversation I have with Reg, to show you what he's had to put up with during this past 3 and a half months.

Me:  "It's lovely up here but where's that posh 3-towered building we saw from the harbour last night?  I wanted to take a picture of it,"

Reg (incredulous): "You're standing on the top of it".

There's a little shop selling novelties (aimed at people like us - hotel guests have their own exclusive area of the skydeck, with swimming pool).  There's a restaurant open to the general public, selling an expensive lunch; or you can have a drink at the gift shop, but there's no shade, and nowhere to sit - so there's no encouragement for people to stay on the skydeck for long.  We didn't really have to queue to come up, and there's a continuous tide of people arriving, staying for a short while in the intense heat of the day, and then zipping down again in the lift.

It's one of those things I'm glad we do while we are in Singapore.  Back on the ground floor, we pop into a smart cafe have a drink (a cappuccino for me and a green tea for Reg) plus a "posh cake"- a chocolate eclair for me and a fruit tart for Reg.  There are a few high tables to sit at, and high counters bordering the room, and some tall silver bar stools - but not enough for everyone who's using the cafe, so some people are standing while consuming their refreshments.  The eclair is lovely, though!

In a way we're on a tourist conveyor belt - doing the things people do who are visiting Singapore.  Some of the attractions have been specifically designed with tourists in mind - in contrast, for example, to the "Great Wall of China" or other historic feature, where tourists visit something already there.   One such tourist-orientated new attraction is surely The Garden by the Sea - only recently opened and really near the Marina Bay Sands hotel.  We have a wander around, but Reg comments that this garden will be a lot better in a few years time, when it's had a chance to grow and mature.

What impression does Marina Bay leave us with?  What is our reaction to this pristine, glamorous Singapore oozing money and the high-life?  We know that we've only scratched the surface, but underneath this "dream house" without a "cushion" out of place, there must be a "home" - the community of the real Singapore.  People living worthwhile lives, family-orientated, caring about others, trying to make a difference, interested in putting people first , and not just  in "making a quick buck."  Apparently, Singaporians work the longest hours in the world.

It is said that the architect of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel Complex, Moshie Safdie, was inspired by a deck of cards when designing it.   We all know what  happened in the Western world when the financial bubble burst, when the house of cards came tumbling down.  To the tourist like myself, Singapore appears to be a stable, thriving society- even if it does have the largest casino in the world on its territory.   Perhaps it's just sour grapes if anyone should dare to criticise any aspect of this glitzy society, especially if anyone should mention the widening gap between rich and poor.  Due to public criticism of this widening gap, the Prime Minister of Singapore,  Lee Hsien Loong, took a 36% pay cut in his salary in 2010, but he still earns 4 times the salary of the President of the USA.

A memorable evening

Tuesday 24 July

Reg has cut his arm slightly on the wooden raised edge of the bunk bed in our hostel in Singapore.  He can't sit up without his head hitting the ceiling.  The room is tiny, windowless, and we feel miserable.  We can't stay here.  Reg searches for a last minute booking and finds a hotel near Orchard Road; it's a bit pricey, but not extortionate, and hey, we've only got 3 nights left of our whole trip.  We want to finish on a high, not a low.  He books it.

I tell the young woman the hostel reception that we're checking out after breakfast; she looks shocked.

"We booked a twin room," I say.  "Your information didn't say it would be bunk beds.  My husband cant sit up in bed without touching the ceiling and has cut his arm on the wooden safety edge of the bunk."

To be fair to the receptionist, she's very apologetic.  At first she says we'll have to pay for the next 3 nights because of late notice cancellation; but I emphasise what I've already told her, and stress the cut arm.  She speaks to someone on the phone, and says we can have our key deposit back, and have breakfast, and we don't have to pay anything, even for last night (although we lose our 10% overall deposit).  We think that's reasonable, have our breakfast, and hail a taxi to our new hotel.

The hotel is perfect for us.  The staff are friendly, professional and efficient.  We're told we've been upgraded to a superior room on the 6th floor at no extra cost.  The room is absolutely lovely; large, with
a kingsize really-comfortable bed, ensuite, fast free wifi, tea and coffee facilities, large-screen tv, ipod doc, fridge, everything we could want and more.  It even has a laundrette where you can do your own washing and drying for a reasonable price; SG$20 all  in, about £11.   We're thrilled, and at last can enjoy Singapore.

After settling in we decide to have a relaxing afternoon, and to visit Singapore's Botanical Gardens, as tonight we are meeting up with Terence Hoong and Thiam Hock Ng, the 2 young Singaporian men whom we came across in Xi'an, China.  They were also doing an epic train journey, but in the opposite direction - from Singapore to Europe.  They were taking a different route from us.  Terence and Thiam Hock had given us their contact details, and we all agreed that when Reg and I arrived in Singapore,  we would all meet up, as their trip would be finished by then.

The Botanical Gardens existed when I was in Singapore over 40 years ago, but ironically I don't remember them.  As a teenager back then, what I remember most is school, my schoolfriends, going to discos and dances ( it was the Motown era and there was no shortage of young British servicemen in Singapore then), swimming, shopping, and generally having a good time in between studying for "0" and "A" levels.

It's about 35 deg c but there is some shade in the gardens, and we particularly enjoy the National Orchid Garden.  As we are over 60 we get reduced entrance fee- the first time since turning 60 that I've had a reduction because of my age!

Terence and Thiam Hock collect us by car from our hotel at 7 pm.  They say they are taking us to a food court which tourists don't really use, to give us a chance to try some real Singapore dishes.  Then they will show us some of the sights of Singapore city.

We learn that Terence and Thiam Hock got as far as Kazakhstan on their train journey, but had to cut their trip short due to illness in Thiam's family back home.   Their train journey ended at Kazakhstan, from where they flew to London for a few days (as it happened they were there during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, so were envelopped by crowds!) and then they returned home, early.  We discussed the various places we'd all been to; Terence and Thiam Hock were on a much tighter timescale than us as they are working.  They too had visa problems in Kazakhstan and were met with an unhelpful attitude - what a surprise!!

The food is delicious - we have chicken rice, (which is steamed chicken breast and rice), satay and peanut sauce (satay is barbequed meat on sticks), popiah (a vegetable and meat mixture in a roll, a bit similar to spring rolls), laska (a soup with noodles and coconut in it), and carrot cake (which isn't a cake at all - it's a dish with onions, garlic, carrots and dried shrimps).  Part-way through the meal Terence's friend Michelle, who studied law at Reading University, joins us.  Terence has been to Reading University too, and they share some of their memories of living in England, and particularly of English food.  They don't like our food much!  I tell them that if and when they come back to England, they must come to Bristol, and I'll let them try some home-cooked British food.

We chat about life in Singapore, the politics, the population, how glitzy and sparkling Singapore is, with its wonderful architecture displayed in new buildings everywhere, its gleaming streets, the "cultivated" tourist destinations.  Terence and Thiam Hock both have degrees, and are young executives who are making their way in the world.  However we learn that they both still live at home, and that this is "normal" in Singapore culture - it's very expensive to "move out" and live independently.  Only a few years ago, young couples would go to live with the husband's parents on marriage; now it's more usual for a young couple to live on their own when they get married.  Couples do not normally live together unless they are married.

When we go on our tour of some of the Singapore sights, Terence points out some blocks of flats.

"Most Singaporeans live in this type of accommodation," says Terence.  " The flats are reasonably priced, and within reach of most people's budget - about £200,000."

Terence is driving, and he takes us to the Marina Bay area, from where we can see the harbour, the river, and the brand new Marina Bay Sands Hotel complex, only finished in 2010.  From our peaceful vantage point, we can see this spectacular feat of architecture, a 3 towers complex, 57 stories high, joined at the top by a boat-shaped roof.   This magnificent building glitters against the night sky; a conglomerate of other new-looking skyscrapers also lace the skyline; they are mainly buildings in the financial sector.

 Singapore, or this part of it at least,  oozes prosperity and success, glitz and glamour.  It's clear that the government of Singapore, with its strict laws and policies (the penalty for being caught with hard drugs such as heroin, can be execution) has invested hugely in the development and infrastructure of the city.

We still have a lot to learn about the metamorphosis of Singapore; how it changed from the Singapore I knew 40 years ago to the bustling metropolis it is today.  We're so grateful to Terence and Thiam Hock for treating us to this our wonderful, memorable evening, including the fabulous meal; and for giving us food for thought as well.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Our last train journey

Monday 23 July

We sit on the modern station platform in Ipoh, with our mountain of luggage, waiting for the rusty little train which will take us to Singapore - our final train journey on this trip.  A glossy, modern train glides into the station, but we know it's not ours.  We're catching the same train to Singapore as brought us to Ipoh from Butterworth; it's just a continuation of that journey.

We reflect that we've loved our time in the Cameron Highlands, and are really glad we included it on our trip itinerary.  Often travellers we meet say, "Didn't you go to so-and so when you were in China, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc"; we're aware that there are so many beautiful places and popular destinations we haven't managed to visit.  Difficult choices have had to be made about where to go, especially as it's possible we may not return to South East Asia - not because we don't want to, but there are so many other places to see if we are fortunate enough to travel again.  Reg is thinking about us cycling from Bristol to Istanbul!!  :-)

Reg was able to choose where we sat when he booked this train, hence we're in seats near the end of the carriage with loads of leg room.   That's helpful as the journey is 9 hours long - from 11.30 am to 8.30 pm; so it's a day journey, with customs checks as we near the end, we guess, as we leave Malaysia and enter Singapore.

This time Reg has booked Superior class, which we learn isn't as "high up" as the Premier class seats, that we occupied coming from Butterworth to Ipoh.  The seats are just as comfortable - as far as we can see, the main difference is that there's a lot more people in the carriage, including a poor woman with a young baby who  is crying incessantly.  The other difference  is that there's no free bottle of water and piece of cake.  We're able to fill up our flask with boiling water in the buffet car though, which is the next carriage along, so we drink numerous cups of tea - especially as the toilets are just metres away from us, but in the next carriage, fortunately (no smells).  One toilet has the "women" logo, one the "men" logo.  I haven't come across that before in a train.

I write up my blog for the previous day in Open Office on the train, and am then engrossed in my book (oh dear, not my kindle - another paperback I bought in Cambodia - no wonder our luggage is so heavy).  I barely glimpse the passing scenery, but when I do it's lush green forest and vegetation.

Around lunchtime Reg pops to the buffet car to refill our flask, and comes back with 2 nasi goreng (fried rice) takeaways.  That with a Snickers bar each will keep us going for today.   I barely notice that we pass through the "exit customs" as we leave Malaysia; it's the simplest procedure we've come across so far.  No having to get off the train, no luggage searches; a woman official wearing the familiar Malaysian purdah (if you are Malay and therefore Muslim I believe you have to wear this headscarf which encircles the face but doesn't cover it - there's no burka) simply asks for our passports and writes today's date next to our immigration stamp (which notes the date we entered Malaysia) and signs it.  And that's it.

A few minutes later we cross the Straits of Johor and are very quickly at our destination, the Woodlands railway station in Singapore, which is also the customs/border entry point.  This too is a simple process; we complete an immigration form, our passports are stamped, and we are waved through; no-one wants to look inside our luggage.  Reg is disappointed though, as he'd wanted the trainguard to take a photo of us in front of the train when we got off, as this is the final destination of our train journey - but we aren't allowed to take photos.

In the taxi I mention to the driver that I'd last been to Singapore over 40 years ago, and lived here for 3 years.  This is a signal for the Indian-Singaporian driver, who was probably just a baby at that time, to chat non-stop all the way to our hotel.  He tells us one thing we already know from others who've visited Singapore in recent years; there's virtually nothing of the "old" Singapore left.  I might as well be coming to a different country.  Some of the taxi-driver's views are interesting; I do try hard to concentrate, despite the fact that, including our journey to Ipoh station, we've been travelling for 13 hours.  In the driver's view, Singapore allows money laundering; it doesn't care where the money comes from that is brought into the country, as long as it comes in.  If you bring a lot of money into Singapore, you have to invest it for 10 years, before you can take it out again.  The driver discusses the high cost of living in Singapore and how expensive everything is.  He tells us he's moonlighting to pay for his 2 daughters' higher education; his proper job is a professional photographer.

We pass through the glitz and glamour of some of Singapore's new high rise architecture and state-of-the-art buildings; I don't recognise anything.  We're really tired when we arrive at our hostel in the heart of Chinatown.

The young woman on reception is smiling and welcoming, but the young man with her just can't be bothered.  There's tea available in a flask on the counter.

"I don't expect it's very hot," says the young man.  I notice a kettle behind him.
"It would be lovely to have a fresh cup of tea," I venture with a smile.  The young man doesn't say a word and grumpily goes to put the kettle on.  We see a notice on the counter:

"Strictly no food or drink to be consumed in the bedrooms".

The young man wants payment up front but they don't accept Visa or Mastercard.  Having paid the taxi, we'll need to get to an ATM to pay the hostel in full, as we only brought £50 worth of each currency with us on our travels.  The receptionist agrees to us paying tomorrow morning.

He helps us upstairs with our luggage, shows us to our room, then leaves us.  Reg and I look at each other, and I  know we both feel the same deep disappointment.  The room appears modern and clean, and sharing toilets and showers has never been a problem.  But the room is tinier than a shoebox; described as twin bedded, it has bunk beds and barely enough space to walk around the bunks.  There's no other furniture in the room at all, in fact there's no space for anything else.  There's just enough room to dump our luggage.

Reg takes the top bunk, but the ceiling's low, and he can hardly get into bed, without hitting his head on the ceiling.  The high-up air-conditioning in this miniscule room makes it extremely cold on the top bunk.  The beds are flimsy and uncomfortable.

'Are you cold?"  I whisper up to Reg.
"I'm alright.", he replies, in typical Reg fashion.

But he doesn't sound alright, and everytime he moves in the top bunk, I think the whole thing will tip over.  It occurs to me that perhaps we're being fussy, and that we could have coped with this mouse -sized room and these rickety bunk beds better if we'd been a lot younger.

"Lets look on the internet for something else tomorrow," I say.
"Mmmm.. we'll have a look," Reg replies, a note of optimism in his voice.

It's very difficult to find reasonably priced accommodation in Singapore; it's such a tiny island, so built up, yet is home to over 5 million people, and is a magnet for tourists.

Welcome to Singapore.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

All Souls Anglican Church, Bringchang, Cameron Highlands

Sunday 22 July

We went earlier in the week to find the location of All Souls Church, which is, as far as we know, the only Anglican church in this part of the Cameron Highlands. It's just down the road from where we're staying, and the service is at 10.30 am today, and it's in English.

There's some houses nearby, but All Souls Church stands alone, in a slightly elevated position, surrounded by grassland. It's about the size of a small Methodist chapel, and appears to be concrete built. A young Malaysian woman is standing outside the church door; she welcomes us, and hands us a notice sheet. A young pastor is standing at the door, and asks us where we're from.

The church looks like a Nissan hut inside, with a curved ceiling, and is painted entirely in magnolia. The layout is simple. At the front of the church, in the centre, is a narrow communion table, covered in a white cloth, with a 1ft high brass cross on it. There's a tub of fresh flowers, another brass cross, and a communion rail. To the left of these are a piano, a set of drums, and a couple of music stands; to the right, a large screen, with a photo of grapes on it, and the bible verse “Fruit of the spirit” - John 15:5. The congregational chairs (wooden with rattan seats, some slightly in need of repair) are in straight rows, with a centre aisle.

There is no choir, and no-one to play the drums or the piano today. There are no hymn books or bibles, but several of the congregation of about 40 people (which includes 3 young indian boys, the only children present) have brought their own. The overhead screen is dominant throughout the service, even during the prayers and the sermon.

What is different about this service?
  • A man with a guitar leads us in choruses (non of which I know, but inspiring nevertheless) for the 1st 10 minutes of the service;
  • the choruses are followed by prayers of intercession, which have a strong political content, imploring people to vote wisely “for a Malaysia free from corruption and discrimination” at the forthcoming general election;
  • The offertory hymn is the only one I know: “Give thanks with a grateful heart”
  • The prayer given on receipt of the offering, usually said just by the minister in Methodist Churches, is on the overhead screen and said by everyone together;
  • The welcome (everyone claps when the pastor welcomes “visitors from England”) and notices are given half-way through the service;
  • As Reg says at the end of the service, 'You know what was different about this service? There was no Lord's Prayer.”

To my shame, I hadn't even noticed this; but when Reg mentions this fact I'm really surprised. The service lasts about an hour and 10 minutes; for me, it's a joyful experience, just to be able to worship with others after so many weeks of not being able to come to church. I share with Reg that I feel that the overhead screen was overused, but that's only my opinion. Also I think that the large number of bible verses used in the sermon tended to confuse the theme of the service (Christian Unity), rather than enhance it.

After the service, an older woman with a New Zealand accent invites us to stay for coffee. She introduces herself as Lorraine, and tells us that she's lived in Malaysia and has worshipped at this church for over 40 years. She's originally from New Zealand, but while studying in England as a young woman she met and married her husband, a Malaysian also studying in England, who's father owned a tea plantation.

Lorraine tell us that although this church has always been owned by the Anglican church, it has only had an Anglican (Malaysian) pastor for the past 15 years; before that it was run by missionaries. I mention that it was unusual not to have the Lord's Prayer in an Anglican morning service; Lorraine nods knowingly.

On the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month, we have a straight Anglican communion service with all the liturgies,” Lorraine says. “But on the other Sundays, our young Malaysian pastor wants the freedom to hold different, more modern types of services, often using hymns by Malaysian composers.”

Perhaps that's why I don't know most of the hymns. Lorraine strikes me as a deeply spiritual person who's had to face lots of changes in her church over the years, including some she may not have agreed with. But in faith she's been willing to move forward.

Someone hands her a bag of money. “I'm church treasurer,” she smiles. She draws my attention to a drawing of a modern church building, which has been laminated and is fixed to the outer church door.

We're raising money for a new church building,” she says. Here's a church with faith; the congregation numbers between 30 and 50, and there's an item in the notices saying, “please pray for a leader to chair the Building Committee so that the church building renovation project can make progress.”

Lorraine tells us that although there are Chinese-Malaysians and Indian-Malaysians, the majority of the Malaysian population is, understandably, Malay; and Malays don't have a choice in their religion. They are Muslim from birth. Should a Muslim want to convert to the Christian faith, it's an extremely difficult thing to do, and Islam leaders will try hard to persuade the defector not to leave the Muslim faith. Lorraine explains that years ago it wasn't a problem being a Christian – there was a “live and let live” attitude towards religion. She has many Malay friends; but it's a sad fact that Christians, who are a minority faith in Malaysia, are often discriminated against.

Lorraine tells of an incident involving a box of bibles, which were recently delivered by The Bible Society to the Christian church in Malaysia. The government insisted on stamping them to the effect that they were not to be used for evangelism purposes; they must only be used by those who are already Christians. The Christian church in Malaysia refused to accept the bibles on this basis.

One of the worship leaders in the service mentioned a political leader who promised to “rid this province of the scourge of Christianity”. Christians throughout Malaysia prayed that this leader wouldn't be elected; fortunately their prayers were answered. We discuss China, where Christianity is a fast-growing religion, and come to the conclusion that it's easier to be a Christian in communist China that in supposedly-democratic Malaysia.

I thank Lorraine for talking to us, and we exchange email addresses.

One last question,” I ask, “What role do women have in the church here? I notice that no women were involved in the leading of worship this morning.”

That's because women don't want to be involved,” replies Lorraine. “ I'm on the reading rota in church, but there are no women pastors or lay pastors in Malaysia. We haven't got that far yet. And as for gay and lesbian church leaders .. don't even go there.”

I'll pray for your church,” I tell Lorraine, as Reg and I say our goodbyes and walk away into the warm sunshine of the Cameron Highlands.