What’ve Ubin up to? A day trip to Singapore’s Pulau Ubin

When you’re sitting waterside at Marina Bay, sipping on a cocktail and eating great Spanish food in a chic restaurant, it’s easy to forget that Singapore was once jungle, shophouses and kampungs (the Malay word for ‘village’). A quick trip to Pulau Ubin takes you back just a little and gives you a glimpse of what things were like way back when.

A ten minute, $2.50 ride on a rickety ferry from the Singaporean mainland gets you there. Disembark and you’re immediately on Ubin’s main road. Rental bikes parked out the front of rustic old buildings line both sides of the road. Further along you’ll come across a few eateries serving up cold drinks and fresh seafood. You might even get to see your lunch swimming around in a big blue plastic tub before you eat it. When they say ‘fresh’, they mean it. Lucky we didn’t order steaks because I’d hate to look into some poor cow’s eyes before it’s shot in the head and served medium rare with a side of mash.

As we sit and chat away, sweaty cyclists pull up, park their bikes and sit down to enjoy a frosty beer over a few laughs. It’s a relaxing but vibrant place that seems like it’s been transplanted from a few decades ago into today. It’s a world away from Singapore’s cityscapes and urban sprawl and reminds me more of Indonesia than Singapore.

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It’s a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle for a few hours. Most people head there for a leisurely but unbearably sweaty bike ride through Ubin’s jungle. Well, unbearably sweaty for an expat who thinks he’s adjusted to Singapore’s heat and humidity but has, in reality, only learned to complain less. Kayaks can be hired for a few dollars. The water surrounding Singapore is harder to see through than hot chocolate but it’d still be fun to cruise along on its surface, nonetheless.

The roads are paved and wind through thick forest which covers 98% of the Island. Although the occasional car passes through, the only traffic you’ll generally see are other bikes which makes for a relaxing day.

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We sat to have a nibble and a couple of cold beers before we hired some bikes to cruise around on. My girlfriend and I hired a tandem bike which I’d never ridden before. My girlfriend has only ever ridden a bike once in her life which made for an ‘interesting’ afternoon.

First lesson for her: turning the pedals does not mean you’re pedaling. Her and I are a team and while there’s no ‘i’ in team, there is definitely an ‘m’ and an ‘e’ and, in this case, it was ‘me’ who was pedaling and her who was enjoying the views. She might disagree but the proof is there: after fifteen minutes, I was sweatier than a schoolboy sitting by the runway at a Victoria’s Secret show. She, on the other hand, was smiling like a grown man sitting by the runway at a Victoria’s Secret show. But she did eventually start putting some effort into it.

Second lesson for her: it’s fun to go fast. The occasion downhill scared the hell out of her but it gave me a brief reprieve from the scorching burn of the lactic acid that was coursing through my legs and having the breeze blowing in your face is heavenly when you’re drenched in the sweat of your brow. And your back. And your arms. And… well, you get the picture.

IMG_5420Ubin’s trails offer a nice ride with some good spots to stop and relax by.

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This lake is probably littered with the corpses of tandem riders who didn’t want to do their fair share of the work. Just saying…

I did have a ‘wow, that could’ve been bad’ moment that didn’t happen while we were riding but while we were next to a placid pond. We rode past a charming little clearing where a couple of these largish ponds sat covered in lilly pads with bright pink and yellow blossoms growing out of the murky water. We stopped to have a rest and check them out.

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While I was snapping off photos, I heard a rustle in the branches of an overhead tree. I thought for a moment that it might be a monkey and, having flashbacks of a previous encounter with a crazy macaque on Bintan Island, I looked up in fear to see if one of the sneaky things was overhead and looking to dive and sink its teeth into me or, worse, poop on me (I’d prefer to get bitten because fewer people will laugh at you in years to come and rabies shots are cheap). It was worse, much worse.

I had only started to look up when a coconut the size of a bowling ball suddenly came crashing down and splashed into the pond not two metres from me, covering me in water and a bit of mud. I wasn’t even worried about the water when I realized that if it had landed on my head, my girlfriend would’ve been left to carry my limp body back to the ferry (serves her right for not pedaling so hard on the way there).

The murderous amongst us look just like the rest of us. The coconut on the left is the one that looks the same but doesn't have the average coconut's respect for human life.

Sociopaths, to the naked eye, look just like the rest of us and blend in easily. The coconut on the left is the one that blends in with the rest of the coconuts but doesn’t have the average coconut’s respect for human life. 

IMG_5433We rode on and came across kampungs which are loose collections of homes that look like they’ve been there since Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles thought to himself “Hey, this place could use an over-priced five-star hotel named in my honour with six bars serving up Singapore Slings which I’ll have to get someone to invent someday.” There is only one place on the mainland where you can still see old-style kampungs so it was a rare chance to get a brief peek into Singapore’s past.

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Old-style kampungs tucked away into the thick Singaporean forest are a window into yesteryear. They probably didn’t look very different six or seven decades ago.

After a fun ride, we headed back to the harbour where we sat to eat at a busy outdoor restaurant. A torrential downpour kept us willing prisoners under the eatery’s roof. I say willing because we kept ordering beers and had a great meal of fresh seafood including chilli crab, mantou buns and some amazing noodles.

Ferries

Ferries are lined up waiting to take passengers back as soon as they’re ready. No booking, very little waiting, very cheap and it’s a ten minute ride. Convenient.

Pulau Ubin is a cool little place to get away for a few hours. It’s not Bali and it’s certainly not Fiji but, for $2.50, it’s a cool way to spend the day. And you do get to see what Singapore was like way back when.

Postscript: My girlfriend did actually put in some effort but there weren’t as many jokes in that so I took some creative liberties. You know I love you, babe!

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Italia, ti amo: Part III

I’ve found it hard to start each post in this series about our trip to Italy a fortnight ago. I mean, it’s Italy. Where do you start?

My girlfriend and I began our Italian adventure in Follonica, spending two nights with some family of mine that I met for the first time. Then we headed south, spending four nights in Positano on the magical Amalfi coast.

Well, what do you know? I started.

Our last night in Italy was spent in Rome. I wish we had more time to spend there, even just to walk the streets.

Australia has only been settled for a little over two hundred years so the oldest thing of interest that you’re likely to see there is our ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke, now in his eighties, sculling a schooner of beer in under three seconds. Understandably, I was frothing at the prospect of seeing ancient Roman ruins so first stop: the Colosseum.

That such a thing was built two thousand years ago and that it is still standing today is astonishing. I hope they didn’t waste any money on an extended warranty. This thing was built to last.

The arena floor is gone, revealing a network of chambers below. They were used in much the same way that people use basements nowadays: they held boxes of crap that they didn’t want to keep but couldn’t be bothered throwing out and guys pashed girls down there after school.

sfgsfdgIMG_4914The Colosseum reminded me that technology doesn’t say as much about a society as the imagination with which they harness it. Stonemasonry and brick making might not sound like technology to kids raised with tablets and touch phones but stonemasons were the Silicon Valley geeks of bygone eras, masters of a technology crucial to building castles, fortresses and places of worship. What they accomplished using the technology available to them is astounding.

Right next door is the Forum. We didn’t get many good pictures of it but in its time it was an impressive space. Also next door is the Arch of Constantine (what a neighbourhood). It was built to commemorate Constantine’s victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

The arch of Constantine was built to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

These letters used to be in bronze. They extol the virtues of the emperor Constantine.

The letters in the inscription above were originally in bronze. When new, this arch would’ve been a phenomenal sight. It still is.

The detail on the statues and reliefs is brilliant.

From here, we walked across town to get to the Trevi Fountain. A tip: forget taxis. There’s so much worth seeing and the atmosphere is the best thing about Rome. Soak it up as you walk. Stop and have a coffee and a cannoli. Take the chance to sit amongst the hustle and bustle.

En route to the fountain, we crossed the Altare della Patria, a monument built to honour Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy. Its erection stirred up some controversy as it destroyed much of Capitoline Hill. Its gaudiness hasn’t won everyone over, either. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive structure with sculptures all over it.IMG_5067test

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After winding our way through some cool little cobblestone lanes, we reached the Trevi Fountain. The crowd surrounding it was thick. I was instantly bothered by it but after working our way to the water’s edge, I was gob-smacked by this work of crazy frickin’ art (sorry, I’m writing about Italy and running out of decent adjectives).

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The Fontana di Trevi is a sprawling work of art. It’s hard to gauge its scale in the photo above but to me, the main figure of Oceanus in the centre looked to be nearly three metres tall.

The fountain is said to depict "a virgin shepherdess who showed the spring to soldiers seeking water" according to a 16th century writer.

The fountain is said to depict a virgin shepherdess who showed a spring to soldiers seeking water, according to a 16th century writer.

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Oceanus, the divine personification of the World Ocean which was said to encircle the world.

In the centre is Oceanus, the divine personification of the World Ocean which was said to encircle the world.

There’s a legend that says that throwing a coin into the fountain will ensure that you return to Rome one day. Around three thousand euros are thrown into the fountain every single day. Talk about a money spinner. Clement XII: my hat goes off to you and your remunerative vision. Well played, sir. Well played.

All jokes aside, the money is used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s needy. Well played, Rome. Well played.

Call me cheesy but one thing that I really wanted to do in Italy was to sit at a cozy cafe or restaurant table in a cobblestone lane while sipping on an espresso (loafers optional). We visited a few in our short time there. Every one we entered had great coffee and cakes, fresh pasta, very affordable house wine good enough to make it onto any wine list in Australia and an atmosphere worth traveling to the other side of the globe for.

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Back alleys and lane ways in Sydney should be avoided. In Rome, they should be sought out. Cafes, restaurants and stores line these romantic little thoroughfares.

IMG_5075Something I haven’t mentioned but that deserves to be said is that Italians are cool people. My grandfather is Italian and I can pass for an Italian, so a quick “Scuzzi…” from me has most locals firing off a barrage of rapid-fire Italian at me but my girlfriend is an Australian of Indonesian descent so she looks like nasi goreng but sounds like a meat pie and she was treated well wherever we went, too. Italians are laid back with what Australians would call a “she’ll be right” attitude. Feel like chilling out? Too easy. Late bus? No problem. Worried about something? No worries, she’ll be right.

Even after only one night there, I could go on and on about Rome but, frankly, I’m running out of adjectives. Besides, I’m no travel writer. What I am is a lucky man who gets to travel and explore with his awesome woman, a guy who has been fortunate enough to visit Italy in his lifetime.

Italy. There’s no place like it. It’s romantic and full of style, it boasts amazing food, scenery and architecture, the people are warm and the place is drenched in history with modern buildings swarming around historical artifacts of immense significance, like a living city-museum. And the fact that I have roots and people that I can call family there makes the place beautiful in a way that I just can’t articulate.

L’Italia è un posto meraviglioso. Ti amo, Italia.

Well, what do you know? I articulated it.

Italia, ti amo: Part II

“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.” –Anna Akhmatova

Positano

Positano. It’s like something out of a painting. We took over six hundred photos there. It’s just a point and shoot kind of place.

Everything about Italy is magic. The simplest combinations of ingredients produce its world-famous dishes. Its language has such vigour that it demands that your hands get involved when you speak but it is sweet enough to fill foreigners with pleasure when they speak it, even if they’re stumbling through it clumsily. Lord Byron described it as “…that soft bastard Latin, Which melts like kisses from a female mouth, And sounds as if it should be writ on satin With syllables which breathe of the sweet South.” Italy’s buildings and architecture are hopelessly in love with yesterday. And its rich history is as much a part of it today as this morning’s sunrise.

It is, in the Australian vernacular, a bloody rip-snorter of a place.

After spending two nights in Follonica with family, we headed south on a fast train to Salerno where we caught a bus onto Amalfi then another to Positano.

The bus ride is a test of nerves for those with a fear of heights. Narrow roads wind high along mountainsides that plunge steeply into the ocean. One wrong turn and the bus will be falling so far down a cliff that before it hits the ocean, you’ll have time to call home, finalize your will, pay out your credit card online, ring that one person you always wanted to tell to get stuffed but lacked the nerve to, ring your best mate to tell them that you finally told that idiot to get stuffed and smoke one last cigarette as you wear a satisfied smile because you finally told that person to get stuffed.

Abruptly, the bus stops and the driver says ‘Positano’.

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The prettiest bus stop in the world. The road to the right circles up around Positano and continues onto Sorrento. The road to the left leads down into Positano’s centre.

Positano. I can’t recall it without instantly picturing the Mediterranean and the sea breeze, crystal clear water, narrow streets snaking their way between colourful old buildings with small windows and balconies, cannoli after cannoli, espressos, narrow cobblestoned laneways lined with shops that beg you to stroll down them, food so good that we ate four or five times a day and kilometres of coastline too gorgeous for words. Positano is an Italian microcosm sans the Roman ruins.

The view from the breakfast buffet area

The view from the breakfast buffet area of the hotel.

It is impossible to look anywhere in Positano without experiencing awe. From nearly anywhere in the town, you can see the rest of Positano because the town bends around on itself like a horseshoe and cascades spectacularly down steep slopes to a stretch of gorgeous black-pebble beach resting at the bottom of its valley.

Beach

The beach at Positano. Sure, it doesn’t have any sand and is lined with black pebbles that get wedged between your toes and are hard on your feet. Go on, just try to complain about it.

We stayed for four nights and spent our days walking through Positano’s streets, browsing its art galleries, wandering in and out of its shops and eating at different restaurants. We even partook of a few uber-Italian activities that you just can’t miss the chance to try, like trying on loafers. I bought two pairs. When in Positano…

The streets of Positano.

The streets of Positano. Even its laneways are charming.

The roads are so narrows that there are rarely sidewalks, just painted sections where pedestrians can walk.

The roads are so narrow that there are rarely sidewalks, just painted sections for pedestrians.

The food at every restaurant sat somewhere between good and “OH MY GOD, I WANT TO FILL A TUB WITH THIS AND BATHE IN IT!” We didn’t have a bad meal except for the pizza at our favourite cafe. We loved its location, halfway down to the beach from our hotel. The service was good, the coffee was great, their cannolis where addictive (we ate at least two a day) and their orange granite, which is a kind of fancy slurpee in a bowl, was  zesty and refreshing. But their pizza was rubbish, especially when you consider that pretty much every other place offered wood-fired goodness. Aside from that, all the food in Positano was good: locally caught seafood, proper pizzas, fresh pasta, Nastro Azzuros, the second and third best gnocchi I’ve ever had (nothing beats my grandmother’s), the best coffee I’ve ever had and cakes and pastries that were richer than Bill Gates.

Cannolis!!

Cannolis at our favourite cafe. Even their tables were cool.

Espresso number three for the day and granite number two. Granite is so refreshing and tasty.

Espresso number three for the day and granite number two. Granite is so refreshing and tasty. And it won’t make your hands shake the way that three espressos will. I made the mistake of having three espressos in an hour on my first day in Italy. I won’t be repeating that mistake any time soon.

We took a trip to Amalfi on our third day. Personally, I preferred Positano. Warmer, cozier, more scenic and not as busy. But the ferry ride alone, from Positano to Amalfi and back, was worth the trip. There is no piece of coastline that I’ve ever seen anywhere, either with my own eyes or in photographs, that matches the Amalfi coast’s beauty. It was simply breath taking.

Positano from the sea

Positano from the sea. You could stay anchored out there all day just taking in the views.

Positano from the ocean

The view of Positano’s beach from the ferry. I wanted to jump off the ferry and swim to shore.

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The Amalfi Coast’s rugged and stunning beauty. Only people as resourceful as Italians would look at mountains jutting from the sea at such rude angles and think “I might just build a three storey house there…”

View from the ferry as you motor past the town of Amalfi

The town of Amalfi as we pulled away on the ferry.

Rome was our next stop. We would’ve caught the ferry back to Salerno for the views and to save time but the sea was a little restless that day. All boat trips were cancelled so we had to catch the bus. Leaving this town was beyond depressing. It was like being kicked out of heaven. After reaching Salerno, two hours on a comfortable fast train (the Frecciabianci, worth the forty-ish euros) had us back in Rome for the last night of our trip.

Oh, I forgot to mention: the flu hit us both like a snotty sledgehammer on the second day of our trip. I’m talking sore throats and noses that ran like Kenyan track stars. But we didn’t care. Not one bit. We were in Positano. The place is a remedy for whatever ails you, physical or otherwise.

As for Rome, well, it deserves its own post simply because Rome is Rome. It was the centre of our world for centuries, the seat of one of the world’s greatest empires, it’s a living museum of antiquities and is a gorgeous, romantic city in its own right, so I’ll save Rome for the third and last installment in the ‘Italia, ti amo’ series.

Arrivederci!