Archive for October, 2012

A Layover in Singapore

October 31st, 2012 2:36 am by Dave from here

The flight to Singapore left at 10pm, and arrived 12 flight hours plus 7 time zones later, at 5pm Monday. We slept for a few hours on the plane, thanks to the miracles of modern medicine. We got to our hotel in Little India, and ate at Mustard, a good Punjabi/Bengali place nearby. Mustard is common to the Punjab and Bengal; otherwise it’s an odd combination. It’s hot here at the equator — I’m happy to unzip the long legs from my travel pants, probably for the rest of the trip, because I’m tired of stepping on them. Singapore is like Las Vegas: hot outside, freezing inside, and there are casinos, even a Sands.

Tuesday we went sightseeing in Singapore. The town reminds me of an airport; everything is pretty safe, culturally. The signs are in Malay, English, Tamil, and Chinese, which is a lot of people not to offend. Little India, where our hotel is located, is also multicultural: there are clubs nearby which don’t quiet down until after 1 AM, and there is a mosque right outside the window with a bizarrely huge number of minarets and a call to prayer at 5:30 AM. So much for sleeping. The hotel explicitly refuses to guarantee the rooms are quiet.

It’s possible that some negativity seeps into the Chinese, Malay, and Tamil signs; but the English words are pretty upbeat. No mention of torture, which is largely how the peace is maintained. Filial Piety is big. Not speaking the language is a good way to look on the bright side. Dennis was miffed at the anti-intellectualism of the artists talking to his mom in the park the day after the party — well, they wouldn’t call it anti-intellectualism, they would call Dennis anti-intellectual because he doesn’t know about, I don’t know, Fluxus. But he knows their CRTs won’t give them cancer. Don’t know about the backscatter. I miss the whole debate. Keep smiling, Irmengarde. (Where is that line from? Google says, “No results found for ‘keep smiling, irmengarde’.”)

Anyway, the highlight of the day was Haw Par Villa, an idiosyncratic artwork along the lines of Desert Christ done by the wealthy inventor of Tiger Balm. It is a few hectares of ferroconcrete figures dating from the 1930’s, illustrating the Buddhist and Confucian virtues, as they apply to multinational corporate exporters. There is a great emphasis on obedience, but also a place in Hell for usurers. When the industrialists face down the bankers, they are surprised to find that they aren’t as in favor of the free market as they thought.

After that we went to the Philatelic Museum and the Singapore Art Museum, both of which had exhibits from Thailand. It is always instructive to see how many different ways the thematic challenges of modern art can play out. Dinner at the food court underneath the ferris wheel. Gelato afterwards: Singapore is not Florence.

We have to figure out something to do this afternoon before we leave on our next overnight flight to Port Douglas via Cairns via Brisbane. We’re not much for ferris wheels, or ziplines, or shopping. I suppose that leaves trying to find some more interesting food.


A Normal Day

October 31st, 2012 2:23 am by Dave from here

We stayed by the airport and left early Thursday morning for Frankfurt. We picked up the car (which somehow became a 230 euro rental instead of the original quote of 73 euro. Dollar Rent-A-Car has a nice rep in Iceland but their people in Frankfurt are hideous. We drove to Mannheim and dropped off an Mbox for Philipp, then continued on to Strasbourg to see Carrot City, an exhibition of posters and planters describing urban farming projects around the world, where people grow food on their roofs or walls, or in-between their apartments. The exhibition was designed by June and Joe, our friends in Toronto. All of it seemed like a good idea, but there is so much overpopulation in the world that it doesn’t seem to add up: you couldn’t grow enough food in a city to feed all of its people, even if you wanted to. As an activity, it’s great to know where food comes from.

We found a typical Alsatian restaurant (Yelp Nearby Open Now) and discovered “tarte flambée”, which is essentially a super-thin-crust rectangular pizza. Delicious. My French wasn’t good enough for our waitress, and I think they were happy to see us leave. We stayed at HotelF1 (previously named Formule 1), one of a chain of budget hotels with self-cleaning shared toilets and showers which has been around for maybe 15 years. Unfortunately, the plastic in these toilets and showers doesn’t wear well, and the fraying of the infrastructure was pretty apparent. The prostitutes on the corner outside might not have minded.

Our goal on Friday was to get to Braunschweig, which with no traffic or distractions would be a five-hour drive from Strasbourg. We had thought that maybe we’d stop in Cologne and check out the cathedral. But then there was another distraction, a stop in Oppenheim for a photo opportunity, and then there was lots of traffic. We didn’t want to arrive at midnight, so we bailed on the Cologne idea. As it turned out, we got there exactly at 7:30 in time to have dinner with our friends. We would have gotten there a little earlier if all of our navigation devices (old Garmin GPS, iPhone 4 with Google maps, iPhone 5 with Apple maps) hadn’t given us differently bad information.

On Saturday we spent the day with the Schaaf family and their friends: Dennis and Paulina had come up from Munich to join us. After a large breakfast, we began a walking tour of the city as such tours should begin, with a view from a tower. This tower was on a shopping center in front of which a facade of the castle that had previously occupied that location had been placed. The top of the facade had the new Quadriga, a reconstructed group of statues of a goddess driving a team of four horses. Other noteworthy stops on the tour included an elevated passage between two buildings which had been built so Hermann Goering could walk from his office to the church without having to mix with the common people. (National Socialists, indeed.) There was also a model of the city as it was in the 1800s.

Saturday was Ray’s 60th birthday. We drove to Wolfsburg to get to the third party in the series, at the opening of the Thomas Rentmeister exhibit “Normal Tag”, which had as its promotional poster a picture of me and Ray standing next to a mop which was part of his previous exhibition in Perth. He took us around the exhibition, which was entirely different except for the mop. There was a room filled with power strips with three outlets each: one was plugged into the wall, three were plugged into it, nine were plugged into them, etc. There were 3280 power strips in all, which could have charged 6561 phones simultaneously except that the fire department would have objected. There were some works where colored pencils were rooted in the “canvas” so they could bounce around if you touched them. There was a cage made from refrigerator shelves; I thought it would have been more effective with someone in it. Almost all of it was ordinary things being used in unusual ways (or in the case of the bronze tampons, being made out of unusual materials). Most of the time was spent listening to the lectures at the opening (in German) and eating currywurst and drinking drinks at the party in the side room. The entire evening was delightful, and I’d really like to go back to Berlin someday and have dinner with Thomas and some of the other artists we met that night. Thanks to everyone who made time in his day to come to these parties.

On Sunday we went on another walk in the woods just outside town, along with hundreds of other people doing the same thing. A cute ensemble of bugle players practiced playing the limited bugle repertoire. The bugles were all circular coils, including one which seemed almost hula-hoop sized. We also met some folks who had been at the Wolfsburg party the night before. Then we hit the road and made it to the airport in plenty of time for our next flight despite heavy traffic again near Frankfurt. There are not a lot of places and times you can take advantage of the limitless speed on the Autobahn, but it gave us time to listen to Kraftwerk.

The car rental people make lots of money from requiring you to inspect the car for scratches before you leave, with your untrained eyes; they then inspect it super-carefully when you return. I’m assuming the insurance they tacked on when we rented the car will cover the eighth-inch scrape they found at the end of the left mirror (which may or may not have been there when we rented it.) There is no way the car’s mirror could have got scratched, by the way. Dollar’s German partner, Rent A Terstappen, is just dishonest. But it does suggest one of the missed the haystack missed the needle jokes: they charged us for insurance, but the insurance paid for the damage they invented.

Northern Lights

October 31st, 2012 2:19 am by Dave from here

It is birthday season, and we are celebrating it with a series of parties for us and for several people who have birthdays in neighboring weeks. The first party was at our house on October 13. We then had a week to pack.

Our first destination on this trip was the second party in the series, in Seattle. We arrived a few hours early, and snacked on cheese and salami and gravlax, made from salmon James had caught in Alaska. My step-nephew Aaron and his wife Teresa arrived with Aila, his seven-month-old, who was extremely cute and attracted the admiration of Steve’s five-year-old granddaughter. It was nice to have individual time with them. Parties are never deep social events.

After awhile a couple dozen people arrived, many of whom were Ray’s college friends, and one of my college friends was there as well. Dean brought barbecued pork loin, Ann brought very yummy potatoes au gratin with loads of fennel flavor, and there were many salads and desserts. After several hours of eating all this food and drinking wine and talking with friends it was time to get horizontal, which we did at Dean’s house in a very ornate canopy bed that Raina’s grandparents had bought when they were missionaries in Shanghai in the 1930’s. They don’t use it because Shanghainese in the 1930’s were shorter than Dean. Raina’s father had just died the week before. It was very kind of them to host us despite having to rehearse for a memorial service to be held the day we left.

In the morning we had dim sum, stopped at Fry’s, then went to the airport where I again opted out of being bathed in backscatter radiation. They never asked Ray to step into that machine. Security theater is always unpredictable.

I slept some on the flight to Iceland. Ray didn’t. The northern lights were out the window forming a bright band much of the way across Hudson Bay and Baffin Island. They died down by the time we were crossing Greenland. We arrived at Keflavik just as it was starting to get light. We picked up the rental car, headed downtown, walked around in the freezing air waiting for cafes to open, and ultimately had breakfast. Iceland exhibits the spreading worldwide immunity to Daylight Savings Time. Although they do not have Summer Time there, they use GMT which is about an hour ahead of the sun, and the businesses don’t begin to open until 9 AM and some of them not until 11.

We went to the Institute of Phallology, better known as the Penis Museum. It had specimens of penises from many species in formaldehyde jars, many quite large (whales and porpoises). There were some small ones from creatures such as rats as well. But the most impressive display was a set of casts from the members of the National Icelandic Handball Team. (These should be required of all athletes. It’s as arbitrary a requirement as the ones involving what nutrients you can ingest, and much more aesthetic.)

We continued eastward towards the southern tip of Iceland. We noticed water falling off a cliff near the road, and several cars parked nearby. Then we noticed it was one of the places the visitor information office told us to go see in the area. There was a trail which went behind the falling water — it was nice to get out of the car and walk around. Continuing east, we drove past the glacier that brought European air traffic to a standstill in 2010. We decided not to pay to see movies of it, and kept going. Another waterfall was highlighted as “the crown jewel”, but while somewhat large it was completely rectangular and even and not that interesting.

Ray had booked a hotel just a short four-hours’ drive from Reykjavik, but forgot that we’d be super-jetlagged, and that driving that far in that condition wasn’t a good idea. So we stopped about halfway in a picturesque town called Vik. It was the off season; many hotels were closed. The one we stopped at had been cooking soup all afternoon and smelled great, and so we stayed there and had a nice dinner in their restaurant. In the morning we went to Dyrhólaey, a nearby cliffside park with dramatic basalt columns and birds nesting in cliffs. Even though it was cold, the fog lifted as we got there, making for beautiful views in all directions.

We drove inland to the “Golden Circle”, a collection of natural attractions east of Reykjavik. We saw Gullfoss, a picturesque waterfall whose river had carved a canyon in two levels, and Geysir, a geothermal area whose name ended up being used for geothermal fountains everywhere. Geysir itself doesn’t erupt anymore except during earthquakes, but Strokkur erupts every eight minutes or so. Most of its eruptions start out with a rapid fall in water level, followed by a dome of water, and then one or maybe two or three spurts of water for several seconds. At dinner we saw some feeble white Northern Lights — you knew it was them because there was definitely not a city on the other side of the hill.

Wednesday we went to Thingvellir, which was interesting both geographically and historically. It sits at the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates, which are moving away from each other. So the area is filled with cliffs and crevices. Thingvellir was also the site of the oldest parliament in the world, which began in 930 AD. The tourist timeline signs give the names of all the law-speakers who served. People would ride from all over Iceland to decide what the laws would be until the next meeting. The best part was hanging out with an assistant for an Icelandic film production company, which was contracted to shoot about three minutes or so of a Norwegian film. The pools were super-clear, and the silt on the bottom would settle very quickly, so they decided to shoot scenes intended to appear as though they were at the bottom of the ocean. The filming happened at night, and the actors were Finnish soldiers accustomed to diving in temperatures of three degrees Celsius. The assistant was loads of fun to talk to, and we stayed there almost until the sun set. He told us about Icelandic culture, including thorrablot, a festival in the winter where people eat fermented shark and sour sheep testicles and other delicious dishes.

We had a nice dinner at Nautholl that didn’t involve anything like that. It was notable that most of the customers were women. I suppose this is a random statistical variation. Every thousand restaurants or so, you are going to end up in a room with 10 dressed for success business ladies. But if this represents anything but noise, it could outdo that Menlo Park place for cougar night.


October 21st, 2012 6:14 am by Dave from here

Hi!  We are on a quick trip around the world.  The itinerary is shown at the right.

It started off just as a cruise out of Fiji to see the total solar eclipse on November 14, on the Paul Gauguin, on which we saw the eclipse near Pitcairn Island in 2005.

Then, when we were in Port Douglas earlier this year, we missed the opportunity to go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef because it was too windy.  They suggested late October as the perfect time, and we decided we’d stop in Australia on the way to Fiji and give it another try.

Then, we found out that a German artist we’d met in Perth was using a picture of us as the promo poster for his next exhibition, and that this exhibition was in Germany close to some of our friends, and that it happened on Ray’s 60th birthday.  So we decided we’d have to stop in Germany on the way to Australia and Fiji.

The cheapest flight from the West Coast to Frankfurt is on Icelandair from Seattle, with a layover in Reykjavik.  So we decided we’d have a party in Seattle with many of our friends and relatives, many of whom are also coming on the cruise, and that we’d spend a few days exploring Iceland.

It’s interesting how travel planning can work.