Friday, March 28, 2008

Back in Singapore - March 2008

Now we are in Singapore. Journey by BA was comfortable as we got first class travel. I must say the service provided by the BA crew was better than most other airlines, but unfortunately the aircraft was old and dated. Even the in-flight entertainment system did not work properly. However, this minor failure was more than compensated for by the fantastic and hospitable attitude of the crew.

When we left UK it was snowing together with very high wind. It was colder than normal for end of March. We had a white Easter this year in the London because Easter was unusually early. The north and the north-east of UK were under a thick blanket of snow. Traveling during this holiday period must have been chaotic. They say that Easter will not be as early for the next 152 years.

Completely at the other end of the temperature scale, Singapore is hot and humid. It must be around 34 deg C today with high humidity. The only way to stay cool would be to have numerous showers and stay in air-con room during the hottest part of the day. I should acclimatize quickly as I will be here for the next 2 to 3 months.

Singapore is still the same. People are still uptight and “kiasu”, even more so recently I reckon because of the uncertain world economic climate and the sharp increase in the cost of living. I am getting used to the Singaporeans. I have develop the ability to switch to my Singapore mode with I touch down at Changi Airport. When I drive I adopt the rude Singaporean mentality and when I meet neighbours I do not smile or greet as I normally would do in UK. When I leave UK I also leave my civility behind. This is the Singapore way and as they say, “when in Rome……..”

Next week we plan to visit JB. Something to look forward to. A trip to Segamat is on the card. Returning to my roots would be the best part of this trip to Singapore.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Segamat - My Hometown

Segamat my beloved hometown lies in the northern part of Johor state in Malaysia. In the 50s and early 60s when I was growing up Segamat was a very small and quiet town. We had no more than fifteen streets in town with a few more in the surrounding areas. We had no traffic lights, not that we needed any as there were very few vehicles in town. In the middle of all the town streets we had trees, flame-of-the-forest, I recall. Our town was so small that one could walk from one side of town to the opposite side in no more than 10 minutes and one can tour the whole town in an hour. On both sides of the street we had two-storey shop houses, the ground floors used as shops and the upper floor as residences. I was born in one of these shop houses and it was here I spent the first seventeen years of my life.

To an outsider Segamat would appear to be just another typical sleepy Malaysian town. Years ago Segamat was a very prominent town in Johor, the centre of activity for all the villages around the region. Being on the trunk road and midway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Segamat enjoyed a booming economy brought about by the through traffic between the two cities. Travelers by road had to pass through Segamat bringing business to hotels and restaurants. When the North-South Highway was built it was decided that it would not pass anywhere near Segamat but nearer to the west coast. I guess it must be the hilly terrain in and around Segamat that sealed the fate of Segamat. The construction of the North-South Highway was beginning of the end for Segamat. While towns along the North-South Highway flourish and prosper, Segamat stood still and suffered growth stagnation. As far as I am concerned, selfishly I must admit, this has been a blessing in disguise. I would have been very disappointed if my beloved little hometown had flourished into a big town or even into a city. I rather like Segamat to remain a small sleepy town with a laid back atmosphere.

These days I try to visit Segamat as often as I possibly can. The old parts of town have remained virtually the same as I remember it from my childhood days. The shop houses are still there each with the same worn steps that I have trodden on so many years ago. The trees in the middle of the roads have all disappeared. There are some shops that have maintained the same businesses all through the years, most likely under third generation management from the same family. The streets, the hawker stalls, the coffee shops, the wet market are still the same. Walking through town never fails to bring back fond memories of days when we were young and carefree.

Segamat will always have a special place in my heart. It is the place where I was born, where I went to school and where all my childhood memories are. I have over the years visited many beautiful and vibrant cities in many countries. There are many more exotic and glamorous places in the world that I have yet to see, but there is no place like my hometown Segamat. You can take me out of Segamat, but you can never take Segamat out of me.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

City of Toronto - Canada

Now what can I say about Toronto? Three days in this wonderful city is definitely insufficient to fully explore all it can offer. There is uniqueness in Toronto that is unlike any North American city. Although English is the most spoken language here, French is also widely used. Public announcements are always made in both these languages. French influences can be found in almost all walks of life in the city most prominently at most restaurants and also in the markets selling local produce.As we had only 2 full days in Toronto with another day at the Niagara Falls, we had to prioritize the places we thought would best capture the spirit of the city.On the day of arrival it was too late for any sightseeing. Checked in at the hotel and after a quick dinner it was time for bed. The next day turned out to be a fine day with blue sky and a bright sun. However it was bitterly cold, -9 deg C was the air temperature but with the wind chill factor it was more like -14 deg C. We were OK as we went prepared for the Canadian cold.
Our first destination was St. Lawrence Market. It was Saturday, the best day to visit this market we were told. The market was approximately 2 miles from the hotel. As it was such a fine morning we decided to walk. Toronto, like most North American cities have easy to follow roads. Unlike European cities the roads here are in the form of a grid. With the aid of a decent map, it was easy to get from A to point B. St Lawrence Market was not a disappointment. It was crowded with Saturday shoppers. There was a happy atmosphere at the place with shoppers, market stall keepers, children and tourists like us all having a jolly time. There were places where shoppers stopped to eat and drink. We sampled the pea meal ham sandwich which turned out to be delicious. French influence in Toronto also comes in the form of the large variety of bread and cheeses they have. At St. Lawrence Market there are numerous cheese stalls selling cheeses of all makes and flavors. At the bakery stalls one would find all types of bread and pastries. Meat, fruits and vegetables are also sold in abundance here. It is safe to say that at St. Lawrence Market one would find everything needed for the kitchen.We enjoyed our morning at St. Lawrence Market. We could have stay longer but by noon it was time for us to leave for the CN Tower. This is currently the tallest tower in the world with a height of 553m. We were lucky to have chosen a good and clear day for the visit to the CN Tower. From the viewing deck we could see the whole of Toronto and far beyond. A section of the floor on the viewing deck is made of glass. This section of the floor is strong enough to withstand the weight of 9 hippos. However, standing on the glass and looking straight down onto the ground below was still quite a nervous experience.
The next day we made our way to the Toronto Chinatown. I was amazed by the size of the area covered by Chinatown. The whole area is approximately 10 times the size of the one in London. Similar to the London Chinatown majority of the Chinese in Toronto are from Hong Kong. The restaurants serve only Hong Kong cuisine. We sampled some Hong Kong dumpling noodles and had a meal of Dim Sum, both meals were delicious.Our next destination was the famous Eaton Centre. We did not know what it was until we got there. It turned out to be a very large shopping mall on 6 levels. It was a Sunday and the place was extremely crowded. I guess shopping malls all over the world are basically the same. The afternoon of our second day was spent wondering around this mall and through the 2 very large food courts within the premise. The day ended with a meal at one of the food courts.
On our third and final day we booked ourselves on a conducted tour to Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls is approximately 125 Km for the city of Toronto. The journey to the Falls took 2 hours with a stop at a vineyard to taste the local wine. We sampled for the first time the Canadian Ice Wine, which was a very sweet wine made from dried up grapes.Niagara Falls is made up of the American Falls and the horse shoe shaped falls on the Canadian side. We could only view the American falls from a distant. The Canadian Niagara Falls is spectacular and one must be at the site to fully appreciate the sheer power of this God’s wonderful creation. There was a blizzard blowing when we were at the Falls which gave the place a certain added harshness and beauty. At 4.30 pm it was just getting dark and we started our journey back to Toronto.
We checked out of our hotel the next day and made our way to Toronto Pearson International Airport. As we were provided with First Class travel we made full use of BA lounge where we had our dinner.