“That one!,” a German exclaimed as he pointed at me from across a table at the Hofbräuhaus, “He’s from Chinatown!” Though I’ve kind of come to expect this sort of outburst at certain functions here, in this context his statement wasn’t entirely untrue: a few weeks earlier, I had just returned from a trip to a city that indeed had a Chinatown.
A few weeks prior, I took a group of expats also working at the facility I work at on a hike up a small mountain. It had been planned for the weekend before with weather then forcing a date change to what was evidently one of the last summer weekends we would have in the Allgäu this year. En route to the trailhead, a local member of the fire department told me in heavy dialect that I could barely understand that the last cows were coming down the mountain. At this point Viehscheid was over, but some straggling cows were still being led to lower pastures for the winter.
The ritual is a bit of a sacred event here. Every village and hamlet has its day of bringing its cows back into town, and the task of moving the herd is then celebrated with Oktoberfest-like parties that move as the cow-bringing moves. Last year I was in Berlin and missed the occasion, and this year with bad weather I would have missed it again if not for the trip in the Gunzesriedertal.
The hike up the Ofterschwanger Horn was short and uncomplicated, and when a coworker on a business trip from Charleston and I met the other expats we had a drink and meal at the top before heading down. Autumn colors hadn’t quite started yet, but at this time last year the temperatures were probably still ten degrees [Celsius] warmer; the hike up to just 1400 m was to be my last hike for the season this year.
Four days later, the temperatures dropped by about ten degrees when I flew out from Zurich toward Singapore. Yes, that sometimes-admirable little dense enclave just off the tip of Malaysia was to be another weekend trip. The lounge at the new international terminal at ZRH was impressive and arguably the finest lounge I’ve visited. The initial impression wasn’t striking, as the entrances opens into a small seating area with some bottled water, but turning right opens up a hallway that is distinctively Swiss: all the major mountains of Switzerland modeled on the walls above cubbies for magazines and lounge chairs for passengers to read the magazines.
But it wasn’t just the Swiss-ness of the hallway that made the lounge so well thought-out. The buffet was at the end of the hallway, where the selection was more extensive (salads, sandwiches, fresh fruits, drinks, hot meals, soups, desserts) than I’ve ever seen in an airport. Beyond the tables was a waiting area with standard armchairs, and at the very end of the lounge was the curtained-off nap area, complete with small cots and pillows. The other side of the lounge — turning left at the entrance — is a whisky bar with 220 whiskies from eight countries. The final touch to this lounge that absolutely floored me was an observation deck that ran the entire length of the bar, allowing unobstructed views to the traffic movements on the tarmac below. ZRH already has another observation deck that any visitor can access, but the nod by airport architects and security to flight enthusiasts is something that we generally miss in US airports. Seeing it at a lounge is a subtle gesture but a powerful one. MUC has been an exceptional airport for Lufthansa and United flights, but this lounge alone will make me consider flying out of ZRH every time I have an international destination.
The wonders of the lounge were short-lived, and I soon boarded the elderly A340-300 for a non-stop to Singapore. As far as non-central airports are concerned, Singapore’s Changi is exceptional. I passed through border control and headed to the metro station within thirty minutes of deplaning. When I left the MRT station toward the hotel, the until-then unimpressive sunset hit just the right raindrops to make a double rainbow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen evening sunlight this red-purple, and I silently reprimanded myself for not choosing to head toward the unnamed park to the east of Marina Bay for some shots of the skyline.
After a dinner at the Chinatown Hawker Centre, my friend and I called it a night after a long day of traveling and awoke the next morning to take on some of Singapore’s museums. The first was a return to the City Gallery, and as we ended our visit a tour guide was explaining some of Singapore’s development to a group of students. Next time I’ll join such a tour, as the explanations were quite interesting.
We then turned up the road to the Red Dot Design Museum, which actually has a location in Germany (little to my knowledge). The necessity of some items was a bit unclear, and indeed there was even a display case dedicated to the influence of Apple products on the world of design. My favorite area was one with posters showing Mandarin homophones, like hé shàng (referring to a monk or to shutting something) or sha yú, for shark or literally killing fish. Plays on words… a little touch of irony in a sometimes literal world!
The afternoon was largely spent at the Botanic Gardens, but with soaring humidity we didn’t spend a lot of time there. I felt like I saw richer colors during my visit in July 2013, but every so often a flower — whose name I could never identify — surprised me with a burst of intensity that challenged my acclimatized disposition toward a much cooler climate. The humidity helped me realize that in addition to the mental and social shocks of reintegrating to Charleston in a few years, geographically I’ve adapted to a whole new clime as well.
When I wandered around the gardens in 2013, a couple was having wedding photos taken at the bandstand. This time, the groom and the camera crew were there, apparently waiting for the rest of the party to arrive.
The heat and humidity had taken its toll, so we decided to make Sunday an indoor day rather than visit Pulau Ubin. Breakfast was in Tiong Bahru, where there was a goat peeking out behind a delivery truck. When I pulled my camera out of the bag, the onslaught of humid air fogged up the lens — this is generally not an issue in Germany as autumn begins!
After breakfast and a coffee the lens had unfogged, in good time to make itself useful to show off the area’s soaring development.
Traveling to Singapore prompts questions every time for how such a tiny island with precious few natural resources can manage to become a powerhouse of the entire continent, and I was hoping the National Museum of Singapore would hold some answers for how that country came to exit. Its entrance was being prepared for Singapore’s Biennale. While we visited, workers were stringing together the work of Subodh Gupta, Cooking the World, for the official opening in four weeks. The guides at the museum explained that Gupta’s intention was to highlight the food that so importantly binds Singaporeans together through the various pots and pans used to create the deliciousness.
The quest to find the answer to my questions unfortunately ran out of time as the museum closed. A room dedicated to the memories of Lee Kuan Yew showed film of the announcement of his death earlier this year as well as pieces of furniture and artifacts from his daily life. Interactive computer consoles highlighted his major contributions and milestones in the formation of Singapore. It was a solemn experience, one that rather than answer the question of how this country came to be almost seemed to hone focus on forcing just one more: was this the right way forward?
Monday was going to be another full day between museums and time outside on the Southern Ridges, but a stomach bug kept me rather immobile for the morning. After lunch, we headed toward the Bayfront area to visit the ArtScience museum, which had initially attracted my attention because of an M.C. Escher exhibit. The exhibit prior, however, dedicated to the impacts and reach of Big Data, became the focal point of the visit. Its name — Big Bang Data — seemed quotidian but was a trove of information on depiction of data collected and a sharp interrogator for the ethics of data collection.
In one display were annual reports that had been collected over the past decade or so. The curious aspect to this collection was that the author of the annual report was not a company but rather an individual: Nicholas Feltron, one of the designers of the Facebook Timeline, compiled data collected from thousands of sources to effectively depict his life in infographics.
Another case showed the evolution of the fibers that carry the Internet beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Today’s fiber is about 1 mm wide, a far cry from the fist-wide cables that used to transmit much less information much slower.
Another room contained globes with various information. We are so familiar today with our 2D maps that sometimes we seem to overlook the invisible three-dimensionality to our lives.
At the entrance to the exhibit was a projector showing some of the ways data is collected, saved, and processed. It seemed to set up a theme for the next rooms: data analytics is nothing new, but its role in our increasingly electronic world will continue to increase at a currently unknown cost.
The exit to the exhibit posed the question much more abruptly. The amount of data being collected today is just a fraction of what will be collected in a decade, and there’s no way to answer easily whether so much perception condenses to a unanimous good or evil.
As the museum closed, we took our bags from the luggage storage and headed toward the airport. My return flight was to be on a Boeing 777-300ER — this time, the second B77W in Swiss’ fleet, HB-JNB. Though the pushback was slightly delayed, we made up quite a bit of time and ended up landing on-time. My illness allowed me to sleep for nine of the twelve hours aboard, and I missed my chance to ask the flight attendants about the plane. Next time, perhaps. :)
I tend to have two cravings to satisfy when I visit Singapore: that for diverse food, which — lo and behold — “returning to Chinatown” wholly fulfilled this trip, and that to understand how a people came together enough to overcome a lack of a unifying language, religion, or heritage to create a new country whose primary binding love appears to be a passion for food. This second point is one that fascinated me when I first visited and continues to astound each time I return. This trip didn’t answer all the questions, and short of living there I’m not sure I’ll ever answer them through additional trips. Despite this I’m not sure those two cravings will subside, particularly not when people remind me that there is no Chinatown in Germany, and I have a hunch I’ll be scratching the itch again soon enough!