National Day

Every year, on the 9th August, Singapore celebrates its independence from Malaysia in the form of a National Day Parade.  Anticipation for the day has been building for weeks now as the city slowly rolls out colours of red and white.  While residential blocks and schools are draped in flags, public buildings proudly support banners and signs wishing Singapore a Happy 52nd Birthday.  It is impossible to miss this display of national pride when even the lamppost across from my room bares a banner proudly proclaiming this year’s theme: One Nation Together.  Hence, it was with much excitement that I looked forward to yesterday’s celebrations.

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In keeping with the spirit of the day, I donned my red and white before making my way to the Marina Bay Waterfront with a group of fellow exchangers.  We left with plenty of time to spare, aware that access to the Waterfront would close if it became overcrowded.  While this allowed us to find a seat on the wooden decking with relative ease, we were left exposed to the beating sun of Singapore until it sank behind looming skyscrapers.  Thankfully, we were able to put our umbrellas to best use and were sheltered from the worst of the sun’s rays, if not the oppressive heat.

The cries of the crowd drew our attention as everyone rose en masse, bringing their phones to bare.  The helicopter is little more than a dot in the sky and remains so as figures begin to leap from it.  Slowly they drift down jetting red smoke, tiny figures gradually growing larger on their parachutes.  As they land out of sight, the crowd returns to their conversations; where we are seated offers no commentary and the main performance is out of sight so we sit and talk while we wait for the next feature: the flyby.

I have heard the planes practicing overhead every day since I arrived in Singapore and on a couple of occasions had even spotted the F-15 SG fighters at a distance.  However, nothing could have prepared me for the thundering roar that shook my bones as they flew directly overhead before sweeping up in a twisting show of the jets’ capabilities.  Sweeping away, the two jets are replaced by two Apache helicopters and a Chinook who perform a sweep of the bay.  The Apaches fly off, leaving the Chinook as it lowers itself towards the water, sending up a swirling spray of water as figures dive into the water.

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Next in the Dynamic Defence Display (or D3) was a high-speed jet ski versus RIB chase, complete with the crack of gunfire and small explosions.  With the conclusion of the chase in a towering fireball, we were forced to wait while the display continued out of sight.  The occasional firework would startle everyone to their feet in time to see the final flash of colour and smoke.  The conclusion of the display was comprised of two parts; another flyby from the three helicopters in which the Chinook bore a huge Singaporean flag and a thundering 21-gun salute from a military raft that had slipped into the bay.

Something that struck me in that moment was the relative silence and motionlessness of the crowd.  Where once upon a time helicopters baring a national flag would have been met with loud cheers and vigorous waving, here it was met with barely a raised voice as everyone jostled to get the best photo.  As I looked around, faces were obscured as everyone pointed their phones to the sky.  Indeed, this was the case for the majority of the event.  The only exception was the fireworks.  My somewhat cynical hypothesis on why is that after the first few photos everyone despaired of taking a none blurry photo and was instead forced to watch and experience the display through their eyes instead of through a screen.  This phenomenon of viewing life through a lens is something I know I am equally guilty of but to encounter it on such a large scale was eye opening.

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But I digress, with the display finished we were left to watch as the sky faded through pink and orange to black.  The light pollution, as in any city, blocked out the stars so I was confused when a swarm of stars seemed to move and hover over the bay.  They hung out over the water, waiting to catch everyone’s attention before changing colour and shifting to form ever changing images.  Some were indistinct, such was our angle of viewing but other were more obvious.  My favourite, a ring of people holding hands as they rotated through the sky, captured the theme of One Nation Together perfectly before the drones returned to white and flew away.  This show was yet another example of how technology captures what I imagine magic must be like, though on this occasion my imagination was led more down the path of a futuristic sci-fi than that of a fantasy.

And then, finally, at last, at last – not that I like to describe myself as impatient or anything – the fireworks.  There is just something so thrilling about flaming bursts of colour exploding across the sky.  However many time I see fireworks I shall never grow bored off them, whether it’s straining to watch them from an attic window or watching with a front row seat as they erupt over the Singaporean skyline.  At last the crowd was properly enthused as they oohed and aahed over the fleeting lights.  Bangs and fizzes roared out, preceded by the lights that produced them and echoing around until they had no start or end.  Dancing lights and fiery rain fell to Earth, fading to darkness and lingering smoke as the show came to an end.

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Finding a Tribe

Countless Scouting events and University have trained me well.  I have mastered the art of blending into groups and joining their forays into Singapore.  At least, this is what I like to tell my ego.  In truth, as exchange students, we are all in the same boat.  We have all of us been separated from our tribe and the reptilian part of our brains is shouting at us to find a new tribe so that we may survive.  While the lack of a tribe does not lead to imminent death in this island city, it can be isolating and magnifies the littlest of stresses to insurmountable mountains.  Hence, it is not uncommon for group chats and Facebook pages to be filled with people arranging to meet up for dinner or visit a particular attraction.  Indeed, I would think it more irregular were this not the case.

An example of the easy companionship I share with my fellow wanderers was a trip to Marina Bay Sands.  On my way to dinner, I spied a gathering at the entrance to the residences.  Intrigued, I headed over, asked to join, and was quickly welcomed into the fold.  Upon asking where we were going, I was informed that we were going to watch a light show.  I had no idea what a light show was, but considering it sounded cool and the reptilian part of me was looking for a tribe, I headed out with the group.

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This was my first glimpse of Singapore at night and I was not disappointed as the brightly lit skyscrapers towered over us.  It was wholly different to the skyline of Guernsey but strikingly beautiful in their illumination against the dark of the night’s sky.  While these towering monoliths were not draped in green like many of their counterparts, the spaces between them had small areas of grass or trees, preventing any feeling of oppression.  Furthermore, unlike so many cities, Singapore is amazingly clean.  Not only is there little to no litter but there are no gum lined pavements and the only times I have encountered the smell of mouldering rubbish is when I have passed stores that sell durian, a fruit so pungent in odour, it is forbidden on the MRT.

Even if the light show had been a disappointment – which it most certainly was not – my delight at getting to finally see the “boat hotel” and the warm, contented feeling of sharing an experience with other people would have carried the night.  As it was, the light show was spectacular and I was so inspired I wrote it up in a separate post the moment I returned to my room, despite the late hour.

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It was a beautiful display of lights projected on water jets and spray creating images and shapes of all kinds.  Some were recognisable as birds and flowers, others merely geometrical patterns.  The array of swirling colours on stage were accompanied by music which made the experience all the more immersive.  I could not tear my eyes away and came away convinced that while magic may not be real, technology has done an amazing job of capturing it.

After the light show, we ventured into the Marina Bay Sands shopping centre for dinner.  While the architecture and interior design was beautiful, the price tags dissuaded us from lingering once our grumbling stomachs had been filled.  Ready to return home, we strolled along the Helix Bridge, continuing to talk and get to know each other before we ordered an Uber back to the residences at the conclusion of a wonderful evening.

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I have a terrible memory for names, but as I begin at least to learn faces, it is not unusual to run in to a familiar one, nor for me to sit with those who I will likely be calling friends down the line.  I think I am beginning to find my tribe.

A Show of Lights

It begins with the thrum of music through my body.  Enticing me.  Drawing me into the performance.  The giant geometric bulb flashes on, one colour, then another.  Narrow search beams light up the sky as mist begins to cover the watery stage.  Jets of water leap up, scattering jewels of light, first blue, now red, soon to be purple.  The dance has begun.

Projected images dance and swirl through the spray and the music draws us in.  We are captivated.  We are captivated as a story is told.  There are no words to this story and to each the tale is different, but for me it is an amalgamation of ancient culture, futuristic technology, and above all, love.  The narrative does not suffer as these themes meld seamlessly together with the surrealness of a dream.

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The rumble of drums sets the scene as a spaceship escapes the final hours of a doomed planet.  We watch from afar and with bated breath the final moments of what was once a refuge.  Before sadness can overwhelm, a stain glass bird flies around the stage.  The music whispers of his grief, but we are hopeful.  He escapes his confines in a swirl of silk as bow is drawn across string.

We move on.

Shapes come and go, as in the transience of life, and we are carried through all by the tide.  We crest a wave of notes as the dragon offers his wisdom and a bird remains a friend, though our descent is imminent.  The melody lulls, we have reached the trough and the flowers usher in a new act.  A white peacock spirals across the stage, her song speaks of how she is trapped and dreams of flying higher to her escape.  As the lights dim and shrink away we are know that this will not happen.  The end is near.

But wait.

All is not lost.

The music sparks back to life, bringing with it a kaleidoscope of flowers, blossoming and singing out the hope of new life, of rebirth, of spring.  Now the music is unstoppable.  It charges towards its crescendo.  Onward and onward, and all the while, the lights follow it in its dance.  Then, for a second…  silence breaks.

The page is turned.  This, the last page, is softer.  The story tells of a happy end.  We have returned to our spaceship and the birds are together as it lands on a new planet.

A new start.

A new beginning.

 

First Impressions

It is common knowledge that when one meets a new person, crucial first impressions are formed in the initial seven seconds.  It is not quite the same with places.  Here the generous time slot of the length of the trip to ones hotel is the allotted time.  My journey to the university campus left me with two main conclusions:  one, the weather is very hot and two, Singaporean architects love plants.

On the first point, there was very little surprise.  I had been thoroughly briefed by every man and his dog that the weather was going to be hot, humid and often times rainy.  I had come prepared.  I had two fans, air-conditioned rooms (a splurge I decided was crucial to my sanity) and summer clothes galore.  However, walking into a solid wall of air is something no amount of planning can prepare one for; it is no more pleasant the hundredth than it was that first time at the airport.  Sadly, my small hope that it may be possible for one to acclimatise to this brutal climate was cruelly shot down in this morning’s orientation briefing where one of the speakers assured us that, despite having lived in Singapore for thirty years, he had still not adapted to the climate.

My second observation was how every other building was shrouded in greenery.  It some cases, it was overflowing balcony planters but in many more the plants were as much a part of the uniquely shaped buildings as the glass and concrete.  This thought has remained with me since my initial taxi ride.  Every spare bit of space is filled with plants while trees rise up between buildings.  This green-fingered approach to architecture unequivocally brightens the city and rejuvenates the weary traveler with spectacular shades from grassy green to emerald forest.  I am undeniably curious to see whether this design is carried out throughout Singapore or if it unique to my corner of this cosmopolitan island.

And so it Begins

Leaving home is never easy, the packing alone is enough to make one shudder in horror, but to fly halfway around the world with only a vague idea of when one will return is even harder.  At some point between the 132 miles to Bath and the 6885 miles to Singapore there is a line where the prospect of going away becomes exponentially more terrifying.  This fear does not diminish the excitement buzzing through my veins.  However, it does produce a few tears as I say goodbye to my parents at the airport.  

Boarding the plane in the fog I consider how there was a time when this would have delayed my plane, but now it seems not an issue.  Perhaps there is a part of me that wishes the flight would be delayed, if only to halt the approaching unknown for a little longer.  The plane charges down the runway and begins to climb steeply through brightening white.  I stare out the window for the moment when we will erupt into the ever changing but increasingly familiar cloudscape that accompanies so many flights.  As always, my anxiety melts away with the start of my journey.  Undoubtedly  it will return on occasion but for now I am content to stare out the window and read my book as the plane to Gatwick soars on.

I spend the night in Heathrow’s Yotel, a small hotel chain that draws their inspiration from Japanese pod hotels. Each cabin is complete with a bed, bathroom area and a small pull out table.  Singapore noodles seem the most fitting food on offer from reception so I tuck into the warm meal in my small but comfortable cabin. An early night sees me prepared for an early start and I drag my suitcases to Terminal 3 in time to catch my flight.

There is little to be said for most flights; they are crowded, loud and difficult to sleep on. Furthermore, when one finally does asleep, they are abruptly awoken by turbulence, someone needing the toilet or for food.  The one enjoyment of my flights to Singapore was the opportunity to fly on an Airbus A380, seemingly a trivial matter but still something to cross off the bucket list.

As we finally touch down in Singapore, I am filled with nerves and I can’t help but think to myself “what have you done now? Flying all the way to Singapore to study physics! Bath was perfectly acceptable” but life is about pushing oneself above and beyond normal comfort levels in order to improve and grow. So I may be tired and missing home but instead I chose to think of the adventures to come and the stories to discover.

Why Pick Singapore?

About three years ago I foolishly decided that I was up for an adventure and applied for a degree course complete with study year abroad. Having made it successfully to the University of Bath I happily forgot about this foolhardy decision for a year until reality slammed back into me at the beginning of second year and I had to apply to university all over again. Well sort of.

This time round my list was a fraction more limited than the good old days of UCAS. Not only was I limited to those universities that were deemed to offer a similar enough physics syllabus but my own inability to speak a second language further limited me. While there are perfectly good institutions that teach in English despite its not being the mother tongue, I felt that being stranded somewhere for a year, unable to communicate with the locals, was too big a leap. At the same time, I wished to experience a different culture and way of life that I wasn’t sure the more traditional option of the US could offer.

By process of elimination, I was left with the University of Canterbury, the University of Brisbane and the National University of Singapore. Aside from their lack of imaginative names, all three universities had interesting courses and appealed to my sense of adventure. Putting in my list of choices, with Singapore at the top I then had to wait a couple of very anxious months to find out where I was going. I could not help but be delighted when I received an offer to Singapore and so the intervening months since late January have been filled with planning, packing and panicking.

Thus ends the intro and so begins the adventure.