How (not) to Pack at the End of a Year Abroad

Packing is always a palaver, especially when packing a year’s worth of stuff into two bags. Here is how I packed the bag I shipped back the the UK. I used Send My Bag luggage shipping company. They seem pretty decent although I don’t want to speak too soon with my bag still in transit. My only complaint is that it would have been nice to have been told they didn’t ship to Guernsey while I was booking instead of a couple of weeks later.

Now, without further ado, the list:

1. Clean a year’s worth off dust off bag

2. Fill in the bottom of bag with underwear and scarves.

3. Add dryer sheets.

4. Roll up all T-shirts.

5. Tea break to contemplate how many black clothes you own.

6. Skirts next. Then dresses.

7. Unpack and repack as you realise you forgot your sun hat.

8. Pack remaining clothes and squishy objects

9. Realise you also forgot two draws.

10. Stuff bag with all remaining items while panicking about how much room isn’t left.

11.Use far too much cellotape to attach postage labels.

12. Leave bag next to door where it will present a trip hazard until it is collected.

13. Repeat packing process with items that are travelling with self.

14. Improvise with packing tape to squash items down.

15. Throw out everything that doesn’t fit in a bag.

16. You’re done!

Singapore’s Chinatown Heritage Centre

With the conclusion of midterms and completion of assignment left to the last minute due to said midterms, I finally have the opportunity to write about a bit of what I’ve been up to in the past couple of weeks. Since recess week offered the opportunity to revise in a more interesting place than the library, my mother came out to visit me and see a little of Singapore for herself before we spent the week in Thailand.

Singer sewing machine at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. This one was in the front of the tailor shop.

While I did not spend much time with my mother during the Singapore section of her trip, those cursed midterms interfering again, we did take the opportunity to have a Singaporean breakfast at Keong Saik Bakery and visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre. The iconic toast dipped in half boiled eggs was suitably delicious and I have found the eggs becoming an increasingly regular occurrence in my day to day life. However, I will confess that we steered clear of the sweetened coffee, something I doubt I will ever truly adapt to as a black coffee lover.

The coolies’ room at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. The platforms are beds and would have been shared by multiple coolies. Note the opium pipes.

From the bakery, we headed over to the Chinatown Heritage Centre which had been recommended to me on several occasion but which I had not been able to find until recently due to having the wrong name. Tickets paid for (S$15 for adults) we collected our multimedia guides and wondered into the Tailor’s Shop. The Heritage Centre consists of three restored shophouses on Pagoda Street that tell the story of what it was like to live in Chinatown in the 1950s as well as give an overview of the life of Singapore’s earliest Chinese settlers.

Another of the eight by eight living quarters. This one belonged to a family. The wife worked as a street hawker, selling deserts.

The first shophouse house been restored to its original 1950s interior. On the ground floor is a tailor’s shop, workshop, living quarters and kitchen. Once I had finished being overly excited about the old fashioned Singer sewing machines and listening to the fractionally too long audio guide, I drifted back to the living quarters that the tailor’s family and apprentices would have inhabited. To me it seemed inconceivable that these two eight by eight foot cubicles, separated only by thin boards were the entirety of the space, especially for the apprentices who would end up sleeping on the floor of the workshop when there too many to fit in the cubicle.

This is the sandal makers room. It is his workshop as well as the home for his family.

Ascending to the first floor, I was therefore even more shocked to see the tiny kitchen, shower and toilet bucket that was shared by the entire floor. Here were yet more of the tiny living cubicles each inhabited by either a family or, in a cases, groups of workers. Is was fascinating to step back in time to catch a brief glimpse of the room the sandal maker shared with his family or that of the coolies, complete with opium pipes. The dissonance of knowing this shophouse was from the 1950s not the 1850s was undeniably jarring and I am amazed by just how far this once colonial port has come in these brief, intervening years.

The slightly larger room at the front of the first floor doubled as a doctor’s surgery by day. Here is his medicine cabinet, the pink slips detailing prescriptions.

The remaining two shophouses delved further back in time, discussing the formation of Chinatown. Hearing the plight of newly arrived Chinese workers and the vices that gripped Chinatown – gambling, opium, and prostitution – was fascinating, particularly the roll secret societies played in organised crime. Talk of death lane was offset by the positivity of a bakery’s success story and the groups that eventually came to counteract the negative impact of Chinatown’s vices and help its residents.

A sort of street library or shop common in the past.

All in all, the Heritage Centre is a must visit, the only downside being the length of some of the audio descriptions left everyone awkwardly standing in one spot and didn’t really offer time to chat. I am extremely happy to have learnt a little more of Singapore’s history and have a newfound appreciation for the size of student accommodation.

Gardens by the Bay

I have a confession to make. Despite having been in Singapore for the better part of five months, the observant among you may have noticed I still haven’t been to the famous Gardens by the Bay. This was not for a lack of trying. However, the weather seemed to conspire against me and whenever I had a deadline free afternoon set aside to visit them, the rain would thunder down in true tropical climate fashion. Even when I finally fitted in a visit recently, I did not succeed in fully escaping the rain.

The gardens were wonderfully laid out and even though relatively small, one could meander around for as long as one can stand the Singaporean heat and humidity. For me this wasn’t long and I was happy to enter the eternal spring of the flower dome. It showcased a delightful array of flowers and plants from a variety of Mediterranean climates, many of which I recognised by sight if not by name. I was particularly fond of the driftwood animals hidden away amongst the foliage, notably a dragon perched overhead.

I was immediately taken with the cloud forest dome, it reminded me of a cooler version of the Eden Project back in England. Another reason for my excitement was the large number of dragons tucked away for the observer to find. I many grow old one day but I will never stop loving dragons. It is probably best that I study Physics and not Biology or else I suspect I would already be trying to create a dragon.

Descending through the clouds along aerial walkways and reading about the human impact on the world was as interesting and enjoyable as reading about an upcoming mass extinction can be. I also enjoyed looking at the stalactites and geodes on one level of the mountain.

I had hoped to walk along the famous OCBC Skyway in the Supertree Grove but by this point it had start to spit and the walkway had been closed due to the risk of lightning so I made do with craning my head back to admire the towering artificial “trees” that make up the grove. With the rain getting worse, I gave up on my original plan of seeing the trees light up as the sun set and returned home.

The Singapore Grand Prix

While I’ve only ever viewed it to see the crashes with mild interest, my father is a big fan of the Grand Prix.  When I was initially considering studying mechanical engineering at university, it was something of a joke between us that I should go on to work for Red Bull or Mercedes so that he could get free tickets to the pits at all the big races.  While this will never happen, not least because I decided to study physics, I did take great pleasure in watch the Singapore Grand Prix live.  As well as making my father supremely jealous, I enjoyed the smug feeling of petty revenge for all the years of my childhood when every other movie seemed to be accompanied by the words “I’ve been there”.  In fact, it was probably these very words and a healthy dose of imagination that have fuelled my wanderlust over the years.

My Final Location
My final location

But I digress.  While I had no intention of paying the extortionate fees for a ticket (S$198 or £110 for a one-day zone 4 walkabout) I was determined to find somewhere to get enough jealousy inducing footage.  Unfortunately for me, over the past few years the organisers have become extremely proficient at blocking off all the good viewing spots that don’t require a ticket.  This meant that come Sunday I spent the first half an hour trying out a number of different spots before I found a nice spot just before turn 7.  This location hunt included; two different stairwells, one overcrowded and the other pleasantly perfumed with an underlining aroma of urine; getting stuck in a third stairwell and having to shake the door until two police officers helped me escape; trying every door and shop in the hopes of finding a room with a view; eventually giving up and asking a security guard for the best location to watch from, which turned out to be the first location I’d tried (greatly improved now it had stopped raining).

Despite this, I really enjoyed the evening, particularly the opportunity it offered for me to share something with my father even though we are on separate sides of the world.  This is one of the many ways in which technology is fantastic at bringing the world together because while I was sending off jealousy inducing sound bites of the cars going past, he was keeping me updated on the happenings around the rest of the track.  6780 miles apart and we were able to watch the same race together.  Who knows, maybe I’ll even convert to the F1.

And now the grand reveal of Just Under a Minute’s Worth of Blurry and Shaky F1 Footage Complete With Poor Sound Quality!

Ballet Under the Stars

I can still remember the first (and only) ballet I ever attended.  I must have been five or six at the time and the memory is perhaps one of my oldest.  It was a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and despite a little confusion as to why there was no speaking, a small seed was planted within me that day.  Like lots of young girls, I participated in a number of different dance clubs before my interest waned and that seed was lost.

Then about four years ago, I came across an article about ballet dancers which explained the work and pain that goes into breaking in a pair of pointe shoes only to have to replace them a few weeks later.  I read it with mild interest but GCSEs were beckoning and besides shuddering at the thought of people willingly wearing pointe shoes I continued life as normal, unaware of that little seed beginning to unfurl.  In that peculiar manner that things always appear in groups I came across several articles and videos about ballet and dance after my exams.  The seed began to bloom.  Reading about the physical demands and watching the grace with which herculean moves were performed I developed a deep-seated sense of respect for all dancers, ballet dancers most of all, with their unending grace and prowess.

Since this enlightenment I had not had the opportunity to attend a live ballet.  Instead, I have subsisted on snippets in films and video performances.  That is until now.  When I saw a post asking if anyone wanted to attend Ballet Under the Stars I put my name down before I had even read the details.  I was going.  I was going even if I had to sell a kidney.  I didn’t, but I would have.

Ballet Under the Stars runs for two weekends and is pretty self-explanatory.  It is a series of three ballet acts performed at night on the lawn of Fort Canning by the Singapore Dance Theatre.  Each weekend had a different line up.  The first weekend was a set of contemporary pieces and the second a classical trio of weddings.  It was to these weddings that we went.  Coppélia Act III, Aurora’s Wedding from Sleeping Beauty, and Kitri’s Wedding from Don Quixote to be exact.

Armed with several layers of bug spray but absent a comfortable rug to sit on, we settled down for what has quite possibly been my favourite night since arriving in Singapore.  While it was a shame not to see an entire ballet unwind from start to finish, the immense skill of the dancers and enthusiasm of the crowd completely made up for it.  Not only this, but my friend and I spent the interlude plotting the procurement of some of the stunning dresses and costumes that glittered oh so beautifully under the stage lights.

Some of the solo dances were absolutely amazing, with the dancers flowing across the stage in sync with the music or performing pirouette after pirouette after pirouette.  I held my breath as gravity neglected to pull flying forms to the ground and dancers were held aloft.  The sheer skill, not only to hold a pose but to hold a pose where arms and legs align in graceful curves and make it look utterly effortless is breath-taking.  To transform a jump into an elegant artform, perfectly in time with a clash of cymbals or trumpet call is what gives me such a sense of respect for dancers and why I can’t wait to watch another ballet.

Photo from here.

The Esplanade Theatre

Something I recently discovered is that the Esplanade Theatre has a wide range of performances and events that are either free or extremely cheap, especially with a student discount. For instance, I attended a concert of Shostakovich, Bartók and Tchaikovsky by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for a grand total of S$10.50 which is roughly £6. I think this is particularly wonderful because it means that anyone can take time out of a hectic life to stop and listen. It means that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy world class performers on a semi-regular basis without worrying about the cost.

The concert I went to was conducted by Andrew Litton who has gained an amazingly long list of achievements throughout his musical career. At the end of the show I was none the wiser as to how conductors conduct. However, from watching Litton I am of the opinion that conducting batons should be renamed conducting wands due to the magic they wind in effortlessly bringing together so many instruments. Of course, it is not just the baton doing all the work, Litton infused all his passion into the performance. He conducted not just with his arms, but with his whole body; crescendos were emphasised with jumps and a grand spread of the arms, while the softer bars were whispered of by delicate hands and a lighter tread.

On the topic of moving with the music, it was interesting to compare the differences between the musicians. For instance, while at one end of the spectrum some of the violinists moved their entire body with the music, torso leaning and foot tapping, others remained motionless save for the drawing of bow over strings. Another observation was the different yet similar rest poses of each musician. I imagine there is a rough guideline on how to sit and hold one’s instrument when not playing but each performer infuses a little of themselves into the pose; here a calm assuredness, there a laid-back ease, the smile that passes between two of the double basses signals a strong friendship. Despite these differences, when the time comes bows move in perfect unison and flutes sing out together.

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I was particularly impressed by the pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in his performance of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.1. He radiated and played with such an energy and liveliness that I was unsurprised to read about his successes, including three Gramophone Awards. Once again, I was struck by just how amazing it is for the Esplanade to sell such reasonably priced tickets.

I loved the moments when the cymbalist and triangle player began to gear up for their parts and couldn’t help but wait for the crash of cymbals or chime of the triangle. It sounds mildly ridiculous, but because their instruments are used so rarely, there is something incredibly fulfilling about watching them get to play. Finally, it was perhaps a little unfair on my part, but I found great amusement in watching the trumpeters gradually turn bright, fire engine red in Tchaikovsky’s trumpet calls.

I enjoyed the concert greatly and look forward to attending other events at the Esplanade in the future.

Introspection

Sometimes life’s experiences don’t feel all that significant.  At times like this, rather than writing off experiences and considering a week wasted, I try to change my mindset and view little events as just as worthy.  Take, for instance this weekend.  In Singapore it is a bank holiday weekend and when I found out, I had all these grandiose plans of sweeping out of my final lecture on Thursday, boarding a plane to some undefined, but undeniably fabulous location before returning Sunday evening, sun-kissed and somehow enlightened from three days abroad.

In reality, my weekend has been nothing like this.  Rather than spending the preceding week sighing over glamorous photos of sandy shores or rugged rainforest, I spent it holed up in my room trying to make a video that explained quantum mechanics in relatively simple terms for part of my coursework.  This task made harder by the fact that I am increasingly certain I have absolutely no clue when it comes to quantum mechanics.

By the time I had submitted the video, the weekend was upon me and I had no plans.  At this point it was all too easy for my brain to start down the paths of if only I’d… and everyone else is going somewhere, am I not making the most of this amazing opportunity that has been handed to me?

Upon some introspection, the answer to this last was… perhaps.  Not necessarily the answer I wanted to find, but the answer nonetheless.  Despite this, there were a few things I reminded myself before I began to feel all gloomy.  First, not everyone was going away even if the exchangers’ Facebook page made it seem like they were.  Secondly, a lot of people are only here for one semester so are trying to fit in as much as possible, and finally, I’m studying physics and while I may only need a pass, I care about doing well.  Armed with these three things in mind, I looked over the week at the things I had done, rather than at the things I hadn’t.

cold brew

For starters, I worked out how to cold brew coffee so I can keep a bottle in the fridge for my morning caffeine fix.  I’ve also discovered that I don’t particularly like cold coffee, but that if I microwave it, it becomes drinkable.  Sadly, this is more than can be said for a lot of the coffee I’ve tried in Singapore (shout out to Platypus Food Bar for being next to all my lectures and selling a marvelous black coffee).

I’ve been charity shop shopping and accidentally haggled over the price of a pair of shoes when I misheard the price.  Talking of good ol’ retail therapy, I went to Orchard Road and experienced the mild terror of going into a mall that contains hundreds of boutique sized shops in a labyrinthine layout.  Fortunately, I learnt how to say no to friendly sales assistants and not feel guilt tripped into buying clothes several years ago after spending a hefty portion of my pocket money on a lovely scarf and black roll neck in one of Guernsey’s many boutiques.  Two items I admittedly still love, but at the time wished I’d shown a little more restraint when purchasing.

20170804_220712.jpgSample the nightlife can be ticked off the list as well.  Clubbing is not something I go out of my way to do but sometimes it’s nice to feel a beat thrumming in your bones.  My experience of it in Singapore places it firmly on the same level in my mind as my experience of it back home.  I still don’t recognize half the songs and some people still need gentle persuasion when it comes to the look but don’t touch rule.  That or an education on no means (expletive of choice) off NOT I enjoy you, a total stranger, trying to grab and grind from behind.  However, I refuse to judge all people based on a select few’s behaviour and some people were genuinely kind, helping me with my gentle persuasion before I was too heavily tempted to use less gentle means, which is probably a good thing given the strict laws in Singapore.

On a more positive note, I signed up for Lindy Hop dance classes, which promises to be exciting, especially given my growing love of swing music.  Armed with a single class we headed down to the boardwalk at Marina Bay and joined a Lindy Hop social called Swing the Night Away that was open to anyone.  It was a huge amount of fun and I’m already looking forward to next time I can dance with a backdrop of fluorescent skyscrapers reflected in darkened waters.

So all in all, I have done a lot and still have plenty of time to travel beyond Singapore.  Therefore, I will continue to take the world day by day, without worrying about if I am doing “enough”.  Or at least I’ll try to, practice makes perfect after all.

The Night Festival

I only went for the lights but was quickly drawn into the festival itself. The lights are a lure you see, they tempt you down to the museum and then, since you’re there, why not peruse what else the festival had to offer?

The light show projected onto the outside of the National Museum was short but intriguing. Another story for the mind to tell. Whereas, the light show at Marina Bay told the full emotive story, this time a prompt, a mere whisper of an idea was seeded in the watchers’ brains allowing us to continue and conclude to story as we wished. Here, we delved into the Sci-Fi genre. The geometric lines that define each feature of the building begin to warp and twist as reality changes. The façade shatters, the shards blown around by an invisible wind before they settle into a new shape and a stone lion peers out from the wall.

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Suddenly, the world glitches. Strips of white static followed by the whine of a feedback loop and colour bars signalling a hack. Points of light fly across building’s surface, warping the image as they move. We know now that we are not the only reality and that all realities are nothing more than a computer program, a network of ones and zeros, susceptible to both glitch and hack. But what is this? As successive realities shatter and warp out of existence, how do we know if this if glitch or hack? Will the program reboot? Or is this the end? This is the question left to the watcher, the opportunity to dive to the depths of imagination and explore the world through another’s eyes.

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From Sci-Fi to fantasy, with the end of the show I dive into the world of the night festival. For a fantastical moment, I see the festival trough my mind’s eye, not as the modern day world of electricity and AstroTurf, but as a faire in a foreign land, filled with enchantments and magic. Here the grass underfoot is transformed from plastic to thick turf, spongy and spelled to not become mud under the tread of a thousand people. Fairy lights strung between trees become beads of magic, dancing through the air and bathing the world in their soft glow. Drinks that flash with the piercing blue of LEDs, are painted as exotic and exciting elixirs, promising all the fun of ale without the lingering headache. Only the white peaked food tents remain untouched, they already fill the night air with a heady array of smells and flavours. Perhaps if I was closer and could see inside, I would see wisps of magic as food is cooked over open flames and tossed on to waiting plates.

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As I wander through the night, strains of music call to me. Whispering in my ear to watch this show for just a little while. To relax in the lawn hammocks and let the music roll over me as I soak in the lively atmosphere and sounds of laughter and joy. While it may be odd for a physics student to wonder around with magic in her eyes, it is hard to resist when an extra layer of life adds a whole new world to this program of reality.

Between Sightseeing

As happens at the beginning of any school term or university semester, Sunday evening saw me filled with the age-old feeling of “I don’t want to go to school”. It is a feeling that slowly creeps up on you throughout the day, gradually encroaching on your mind as you realise the summer months of lazing around and doing nothing personal betterment and motivation are over and that tomorrow you are going to have to start using your brain.

This causes the awkward realisation that you are not sure how to use your brain, having forgotten about five microseconds after that final “pens down please”. In fact, you are fairly certain that even before then your brain nothing more than a pile of mush, regurgitating frantically memorised, but long since forgotten, flash cards. Furthermore, what was that thing? You know? That thing you were taught two years ago? The one your lecturer claimed was a cornerstone of modern physics? You don’t really need it, do you?

Aside from this. I was excited to experience the learning and teaching style used at such an acclaimed university. I was also nervous about my module choices, two of which I was still waiting for confirmation on. The nature of an exchange program always means that there will be some things you have already studied and others that you’ve never heard of but are assumed knowledge.

Monday dawned bright and way to early with a two hours of quantum mechanic at 8 o’clock. There’s nothing like a bit of quantum mechanics to jump start the brain. Especially when the lecturer announces he will be using lots of Dirac notation and vector spaces, two things I have barely touched on. So much fun.

Understandably I did not consider this a auspicious start to the semester. Fortunately, biophysics was the next lecture and was a pleasant balm to my worries. It promises to be an interesting course with one of the lecturers researching DNA sequencing and even a little lab time. The dual nature of the course also means that neither the physics nor the biology will be overly challenging and instead provide me with a wider scientific base. It is also my smallest class with only ten other people taking it, half of whom are also exchange students so there is a wide range of academic backgrounds and perspectives.

My final lecture of the day was modern optics and when I eventually worked out how to get into the building (through the third floor of the neighbouring one) it proved to be a nice, gentle introduction that focused on what optics was and why we should study it. Having since had a second lecture since, I’ve realised I am stuck in the awkward position of having studied a fair amount of the material already but not wanting to change because there promises to be some really interesting bits later on. If only quantum mechanics was the same (sigh).

Electromagnetism the next day appears to be a bridge between the impossible challenging quantum mechanics and easier biophysics and optics. While it requires the addition of “learn what a tensor is” to my to do list, the information content appears to be at the same level where I left off in Bath. So, all in all not a bad start and after talking with other exchange students I was relieved to find out I’m not the only one who will be spending the weekend teaching myself new notations and mathematical methods.

The Botanic Gardens

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Sometimes I remember to look at the bigger picture, not just the flowers.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that I have a major weakness.  The moment I see a flash of colour nestled in greenery or a particularly satisfying petal shape, I absolutely must take a photo of the entrancing fungus or flower in question.  Hence, when I go on walks or visit gardens, I prefer to go alone.  This means that no one else need be subjected to my irregular pace.

On my recent visit to the Singapore Botanical Gardens this meandering approach was further compounded by the presence of signs about both the plants and history of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Even greater than my photo taking habit is the desire to read every sign and poster ever written; a desire no doubt borne of a constant thirst for new and unique information.  If only my physics notes were so compelling.  Of particular amusement to me was the different minds behind the descriptive plaques for some of the gardens’ plants.  While some authors took the scientific approach, describing in detail the size and shape of a leaf, others preferred a more poetic angle, unable to resist the tempting lure of an well placed adjective.

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The impressive root systems bought back memories of building “fairy houses” in the Le Guet as a child.

Though three hours in the Singaporean heat almost had me persuaded of leaving the Orchid Gardens for another day’s adventure, in the end I was unable to resist the thought of more flowers to photograph peruse.  In this secluded corner of the botanic gardens I was not alone in my over-enthusiastic photography.  Indeed, while my knowledge of orchids is limited, I do believe that every flower of the species projects a sense of serenity far beyond what one would expect, driving people to capture them for time immemorial.

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The start of the Evolution Garden. It always amazes me how trees cling to rocky cliff faces.

I would have happily wondered in peaceful tranquillity down the secluded paths and under the blossoming arches forever.  However, I was still interested in seeing the evolution garden so was forced to drag myself away.  The evolution garden – despite being walked in reverse – presented an informative history of life on earth with the landscape designed to show the descendants of each age’s plant life.  Sadly, with evening beginning to loom, it was at this point I took a mosquito to the leg.  While it is the only bite I have sustained so far and nothing beyond the capabilities of a little tiger balm, I decided it was time to begin heading home.  Naturally it took me another hour to return to the MRT station as there was no way I could miss the Herb and Spice Garden, and it would have be downright foolish of me not to see the Eco Lake.

All in all it was a very pleasant, if somewhat hot, afternoon out.  Now without further ado allow me to present you with a mere selection of the flower photos I took: