Monday, 11 February 2013

Sunny Singapore ;)

Singapore - my second destination on my amazing travel adventure.

My flight to Singapore from Dubai was over in a flash on the A380 jumbo jet - such luxury with Emirates! Love that I chose that airline for most of my travel plans :)

Singapore Airport is like a breath of fresh air, literally. It is huge, and so modern! From the moment I got off the plane I had free wifi and not the kind that is super slow and irritating. Immigration queue was fast and within 15 minutes I was welcomed to Singapore, had collected my bags and was out and let loose on the city.  Immediately to my left was a tourism desk so I collected some flyers on all the places to explore in Singapore. Next door was a currency exchanger, so I took out some Singapore dollars. Next door to that was a kiosk which allowed me to buy a local sim.  So well thought out! Next stop Ground Transportation and within 5 minutes I was on a bus to my hotel - Santa Bugis Grand Hotel.

The staff at the hotel were lovely and helped me to my room with my numerous bags. Clearly they worried for my back lasting the whole backpacking experience too.... When I came downstairs looking for a taxi, they kindly smiled (a smile which read clearly she isn't from around here...) and handed me an umbrella (of course it was raining), a map and a highlighted mark on map where the restaurant was that I was trying to get to! Awesome.  10 minutes later, I was in Purvis Street to meet Dan the man for French cuisine, Singapore style.  Admittedly I was 20 minutes late by this time, but Dan knows me well - we used to work together as Divemaster and Instructor at Scuba Junkies in Borneo, in 2008. So lovely to catch up with Dan again, and hear all about his move from Thailand to Singapore, and his friendships and passion for what he does these days :)

The next morning I got to meet up with the lovely Hilda!!! SO good to see someone who totally understood how amazingly devastated I was to leave Bermuda in January. That little island in the Atlantic totally stole my heart and it was so sad to say goodbye to my life there, and all of my wonderful friends. Thank goodness for this adventure :)

Anyway.... Hilda met me in Orchard Central Mall, and whisked me away to Ya Kun Kaya Toast for a traditional breakfast of Kaya Toast, along with coffee and condensed milk :) YUM! Hilda had suggested the night before that we try a fish spa in the morning, such a totally cool surprise and as I get to know Hilda better - one that I know only someone as cool as she is would think to do that as a catch up idea!! So much fun. We had our feet washed by a very old man...who then gave us tea and guided us to what was effectively a fish tank on the floor FULL of little brown fish. He said "put your feet in there" at which point we both deeply inhaled and took our flip flops off and tentatively put one toe after another into the water. Haha I went a little slower than Hilda, so I could see what happened first...they swamped her feet! Instant karma however, because as soon as I put my own feet in, they abandoned Hilda and sucked their way up and down my calves, shins ankles, feet and toes...clearly as the backpacker I needed a better scrub than Hilda did :) Such a strange sensation to have fish sucking your skin. Awesome treat. We had such a nice morning and it flew by far too quickly :( I will be back in Singapore many times over during this trip and look forward to our next catch up already.

Hilda left me, looking worried for my safety bless her, on Orchard Street. I walked along the shops, and found a Starbucks (ok so I am not on the backpacker proper budget just yet....) and watched the world go by, while chatting to my ace girl Lindsay in Chicago about life and how to cut down the weight of my backpack. I sense this conversation will need to be had in every country I visit... every time I take something out of the pack, I buy something new. Must. Remember. I. Am. A. Backpacker. Now.

I had an incredibly busy whirlwind of a day in Singapore, so much fun. Ditched the metro card and decided to walk, and walk I did, for about 4 hours straight covering so much ground and finding so many cool little places. I had arrived in Singapore really quite unsure of the city, but left it having really enjoyed myself. I found Bugis Street which is a little market stall area in a funky part of town, with fruit shakes, cell phone covers, bags, scarves, you name it they had it. Reminded me of the market stalls in Thailand. Fairly sure I was the only non-Singaporean in there which entertained the locals quite a bit.  I had a delicious watermelon shake for $1. I stopped for lunch in a place called Din Tai Fung in Paragon Centre. I ordered Oriental Wantons and steamed chili crab and pork buns. YUM.

From there I went to the hotel, grabbed an umbrella and walked to the Singapore Flyer.  All of this at Hilda's recommendation. She sent me whattsapp and facebook messages all afternoon with tips on what to see, what to eat, and what to drink :) The Singapore Flyer is the equivalent to the London Eye. I managed to get there just in time for sunset, and got a whole carriage to myself. The view was fantastic, really clear views of the Bay of Gardens, and the city skyline, the Marina Sands Bay and harbour area. It was all lit up and made for a great photo. Couldn't compete with Dubai's skyline but pretty nonetheless. As I walked home, I found a food hawker area just outside of the marina, and stopped to examine the food. It was packed, and so many choices of food it took me forever to decide on satay chicken and a carrot and apple juice. I sat by the marina area, watching an MTV equivalent show being recorded along the water with a zillion teenagers screaming and singing along. Hilarious! I <3 Asia.

On my way back to the hotel, I stopped in one of a million 7/11's. I found a packet of dark chocolate maltesers for the equivalent of $2.50 (singapore is not cheap). I had never seen these before in Bermuda or UK so felt inspired to try them. I was quickly reminded not to buy chocolate in Asia if it states on packet that it was made in Australia. They add some horrible ingredient which turns the chocolate white, and it does not taste like chocolate and is super disappointing. Lesson learnt.  When I got to the hotel, the man who had leant me the map and umbrella the previous night congratulated me on making it back. Do I just look like someone who gets lost all the time lol? Ok so I got lost in Dubai Mall, but seriously that place is huge..

Laura arrived at the hotel at like 3:30am and we chatted ourselves to sleep catching up. Laura and I met in Borneo in 2008 when I was working as a divemaster and she was a customer of mine. We kept in touch as she shortly after moved to Cayman and me to Bermuda.  She is now in Hong Kong and me everywhere! Dragged ourselves out of bed at 10am and say by a bus stop for 30 mins waiting for a bus before realising I had misread the we abandoned it and hit starbucks instead. Laura only had one day in Singapore so we opted for the Original Bus Tour - something I have never in my life ever done before haha!! We made it to Singapore Flyer where the bus stopped so we had lunch here, it was terrible - no joke, an order of vegetable curry transpired to actually be a boiled potato in a watery curry sauce and two rotis. I did try at Hilda's suggestion a sugar cane juice which I really enjoyed! Then we hit Orchard Road, walked a bit, shopped a bit and then took ourselves to China Town for dinner.

We didn't do too well with buses that day - as we got to the bus stop to travel to china town we discovered we had missed the last bus, so had to get a local bus instead. That was fun, everyone who  I asked for help only seemed to want to tell me  'NO'.  We got there eventually lol! The plan had been to dress up and hit the party scene but we both got soaked in the rain and couldn't face it so we drank Tiger beer and chatted over chinese food which was delicious. China Town was so lit up it was incredible. Chinese New Year preparations were in full effect, and the city was covered in lanterns in the shape of a snake to resemble the new year.

I realised when I went to bed that night I had literally spent the last 48 hours running around like a lunatic around Singapore trying to see as much as I could. I was exhausted! I hadn't actually taken any time to appreciate the moment, and decide what I thought of Singapore itself! On the way to the airport the next morning it was a beautiful day, and you got to see the beautiful landscape, trees, cleanliness and I reflected on my time in Singapore and remembered that everyone had been extremely friendly and warm, and I had walked for hours in the dark and felt completely safe.  It is however very expensive. A bottle of water and chocolate cost more than Bermuda. But on the whole Singapore is a very pretty city, if a little humid even in winter!

Lembeh here I come. I can't tell you how excited I am to be on my way :)

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Dazzling Dubai :)

Dubai - my first stop on a pretty exciting travel adventure around Asia - diving, yoga, trekking and whatever else happens in between :)

I went with no expectations, as advised by a friend, and was extremely open minded about what I might find. I did not expect to love Dubai nearly as much as I instantly did!  Of course, some of that may be to do with the luxury in which I found myself surrounded ;)

I was lucky enough to be staying with a friend who I met in Bermuda, briefly, before he moved for his own life changing reasons to the Middle East. I could not have asked for a more awesome host, he had bought me a new toothbrush, bubble bath salts (knowing it would be a while before I saw a bathtub again...), and organised a kick ass itinerary which involved him spending every spare second showing me new exciting parts of Dubai. Lucky Caroline :)

The adventure started at the airport, as I looked around me at other backpackers in the Emirates queue who had half empty backpacks (how I dreamed for months mine would look after very careful and considered packing) and compared that picture to my overloaded trolley with backpack (packed to brim, and side pockets bursting), dive equipment bag, day pack and a yoga mat.  Not exactly ideal... The lady behind the counter agreed and quickly told me my bags were 7kg overweight (my allowance with Emirates is 30kg for check in, to offer you some perspective lol...). Meanwhile I messaged Russell and said please can I store some stuff at your apartment while I travel and vowed to not break my back whilst backpacking.

Straight onto the plane, and handed red wine. Ah happy Caroline.

After a seriously long line up at Immigration, worse than Bermuda for work permit holders...I was free to go and explore! And yes we did explore despite fact it was after 10pm. Straight to the Fountain Show outside of Dubai Mall - largest shopping mall in the World.  Awesome display of lights and water alongside music.  Next stop much needed food - dumplings! Then straight into the car to go and drive around Dubai! I saw so many things that evening/morning - we stopped at Atlantis Hotel and took a walk around the grounds, we stopped at the aquarium within the hotel and watched the eagle rays, stingrays and sharks swimming around in their huge open space (still not cool but at least they seem to have lots of room, and hey is it any safer in the ocean these days?!).  We drove through Jumeirah, along JBR Walk (bit like Miami South Beach) where there were literally hundreds of people out at 2.30am. Tried to get into a beach bar called Baristi and failed, too late. We saw the Palm, the Burj Arab, Burj fact I saw so many things that night I can't even recall everything.

Friday morning after a lazy lie in, we got ourselves ready for a desert safari. The company were supposed to collect us at the apartment, but in true local fashion we ended up driving ourselves to the desert and meeting the car there. I wasn't convinced we weren't going to get kidnapped lol.  Dune bashing - what an adventure. Literally our driver, in convoy with other cars, drove headfirst into big sand dunes, we raced down head first, we slid down sideways, we held our breath to see if we would roll and before you knew it, it was all over.  In a state of shock, we moved inside the camp and headed straight to the sand boarding! I was terrified, but it was made quite clear that I WAS going to try this... so up we ran with the boards, which is hard work, and set our feet into place and down we went! SUCH a buzz! I fell off the board twice two thirds of the way down but was determined to get it. Luckily I did the third time, just as the recording for facebook began :) So much fun, loved it.

After some local food, belly dancing show and a male dancer - who encouraged other men to copy what he did, and they jumped up all cocky and sure of themselves and needed carrying off stage at the end as they fell all over the place lol! We got back into our car to travel home. We asked driver jokingly if we were dune bashing again...he said yes night bashing...we assumed he was joking. He wasn't. How we didn't hit a car I have no clue as he couldn't see out of his windscreen. Was awesome fun and I am grateful to be alive!

That evening we had a reservation to go to the top of Burk Khalifa- the tallest building in the World. The lift took us up 10 floors per second to the 124th floor, which is the observation deck.  We got to walk around the whole thing and see all views of Dubai, and it was awesome to see how huge and bright that city is. After this we stopped at a local place for some shisha (apple and strawberry flavour I think), desert and tea. The guy handed us an iPad each as a menu - got to love Dubai :) So we ate disgusting amounts of desert, and tea and people (or more accurately - building) watched. Such a chilled way to end the adrenaline filled day.

Saturday we drove to Abu Dhabi to see the Grand Mosque. It seemed I had brought the English weather with me, and although Dubai only gets rain 6/7 times per year, Saturday brought with it the second day of rain in a row. Anyway all good :) We explored the Mosque which was enormous, and required men and women to use separate entrances and exits (even though you could meet each other two minutes later). I was invited to wear a burqa to cover my shoulders, arms and head.  This amused Russell and there were photos taken... From here we went to a lebanese restaurant with the MOST delicious food ever.  The restaurant was called Maroush, and fantastic. We ordered too much food and ate as much as we could - flat breads, hummus, salad, olives, and wraps. (Russell can correct me on the names of everything haha).  On the way home I was asked to tell stories about myself to keep us awake on the highway, so I told him about close misses with sharks underwater in Borneo, rip currents in Philippines, a train crash in Nairobi and so on.

Sunday I started to feel guilty about no exercise so I went for a 5 mile run. 4 miles of which was around the Dubai Mall which is just surreal! Felt great, 21 degrees and so much space on the pavements and amazing views. Definitely the best way to explore that part of Dubai. Watched Russell play volleyball with his team and win, and went for celebratory dinner afterwards. Everyone joined in trying to convince me to move to Dubai after my travels :) I wasn't saying no...and I hadn't even seen the beach by this point!

Monday - my final day. I had grand plans of going running, ice skating, skiing, to the souk, see Burj Arab and go to the beach as well as pack for my flight. What actually happened was a 6 mile run, a visit to Madinat Jumeirah - a gorgeous souk with amazing views of the Burj Arab and gondolas gliding along the water, and a stroll along JBR, a starbucks coffee sitting on the beach while I looked around me and appreciated every single moment of awesomeness in front of me.  JBR Walk is such a cool place to just chill out. You have a fab beach (bearing in mind you are in a built up, growing by the day, city), heaps of cool restaurants and shops along the boulevard. It is like something from South Beach, Miami, minus the tackiness.  I love that Dubai has just about everything you could want to do! I could literally go ice skating in the morning, visit a souk afterwards, then have a ski lesson before hitting the beach.  Just so cool! I have skiing, ice skating and sky diving on my "To do next time in Dubai" list :)

The day ended with a beach volleyball tournament, and several glasses of wine at Barasti Beach Bar before taking me to the airport. Despite removing loads of clothes, my bag remained overweight but luckily the women found us quite amusing and let it slide this time. Phew. I slept my way to Singapore!!! Knowing full well that Singapore has to work hard to leave a better impression on me than Dubai already has.  Such an awesome few days :)

Things I remember most about Dubai: the bright lights, the amazingly modern and funky buildings, the view from Russell's apartment, yoga headstand lesson, sand boarding, the crazy 7 lane highways, the expensive cars - ferraris, lamborginis, rolls royces, the bright skies, the BEACH and endless possibilities for fun things to do :)