We all have a little voice that screams at us when we are about to do something stupid. Mine has been a loyal companion for all these years. Loyal because I frequently ignore it, yet without any hurt feelings it quietly steps up and helps me remove streaks of egg from my face and never stoops to squealing “I told you so”.
But on this trip (actually completed more than a month ago) I think I have pushed it too far. My little voice has reached the end of its tether; it has sulked off into a corner and joined the Inaudible Vocal Conscience and Allied Workers Union (IVoCAWU). It has screeched itself hoarse so often and has been ignored so persistently that it is experiencing not only a crisis of confidence, but an existential vacuum. “Is a conscience a conscience when it is permanently ignored?” “What is the sound of one conscience talking to itself?” etc.
I write this form a room in the Grand Dorsett Hotel in Subang. I hear you groan “where the *(& is Subang and who cares?” Well Subang is partly the cause of my conscientious hissy fit. It is a semi-industrial, semi-city on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (look at a map). Why, pray, do I find myselff in a hotell that choosess to double the finall syllables of a perfectly normall west-English county? And why, as I write, am I trying to make as little contact between any part of my body and any part of this hotell roomm? Well, therein lies the blog.
My business travel plan is to visit each of the 11 markets in my territory by March 2012 and also ensure that I visit the ones I have already seen about once every 3 months. So this is a hectic schedule. And the ancient truth has to be acknowledged: “de ludo pilae ovum radix malorum est” or you can use Google Translate. “Rugby is the root of all evil”. I wanted to get my next trip over and done with before the quarter finals and semis of the World Cup took place so I inflicted a major trip on myself barely a week after returning from the previous one.
Now you know why Singaporeans are so clever.
It would give me the opportunity to make contact with our most loyal customer in Singapore on my way to new territory – Malaysia. So I started working on the itinerary quite a while ago and right from the start the indications were not good. Most of my customers were within a one kilometre radius in an industrial area about 40 minutes outside Kuala Lumpur. Then I started looking at flights and accidentally I found a flight to an airport very close to this industrial airport – rejoice! Then I saw that the Malaysia Airlines flight from Singapore to Subang was operated by a subsidiary airline called Firefly. My little voice started with a discreet whisper, almost nothing more than a clearing of its well-used throat. “Walk away!” Would you fly with an airline called Firefly? What about Midge? Mosquito? Gnat? You want things that soar majestically and safely (Eagle, Hawk, Pelican) not things that buzz and irritate, and are prone to being swatted. “Walk away!”
But I didn’t. I dutifully booked the flights and hotels through our very patient and long-suffering travel agency, Tandem. On my last trip I realised Air New Zealand must have had cashflow issues for not giving its economy passengers bottled water or convenience pouches, so I wrote them a stinky customer questionnaire and decided to explore alternatives. JetStar is the budget brand of Qantas. As a jet gets too old and embarrassing to be part of the Qantas fleet it gets a new coat of paint, a set of funky hostesses and a new price tag – Jetstar Asia Airlines.
“Why would I feel it necessary to look beyond a regular airline?” I hear you ask. Well 11 hours is a long time to fly and it is best flown as comfortably as possible. Since the company policy states economy class only, I figured I could pay close to economy fares while flying business class on a budget plane! Oh, the genius of it. Problems arose almost at once: Jetstar does not fly to Singapore every day and it does not have an overnight flight. Mmmm. I try to keep my dreams intact and set off on a Sunday mid-day. I fight my way through swarms of in-bound tourists to the exit gates and saunter to the front of the short queue designated for business class passengers. My walk is lighter than usual and I dispense condescending nods of encouragement to the poor unfortunate souls in the economy class queue which winds its way out of sight.
The flight was pleasant and uneventful, even though the “budget” aspect of it was very interesting. The poor bastards in economy had to pay for everything that passed their lips and anything electronic that passed through their eyes. How do you control which passengers have paid for entertainment and which haven’t? Well there are no in-seat screens. If you buy entertainment you get given a large Pod which contains all the movies, music and games you want – with a headset. Very clever. The range of movies was older and more limited than one would get on a regular airline, but still it was a good experience. The food was OK and generally the trip went off very well.
From an open-air temple near my hotel in Singapore
In fact the Singapore leg of the journey was excellent. My customer took me to a new type of restaurant. He is my Asian Food tour guide – as it were. This time it was an interesting mix of Malaysian and Chinese food. As usual many different courses, none of which can be finished and there are no hard feelings if you pull a funny face and don’t like a dish. There were dumplings, stir fries, steamed fish and fruity tea. There was also a desert – something the Chinese don’t really do. It was a sweet dumpling. At first I thought the filling was similar to marzipan, but then I was told it is in fact yam (Sweet potato).
I had some spare time between appointments so I bought a travel card which is the Singaporean equivalent of an Oyster card – it is good for all public transport and is super intelligent. In the evening I had an appointment with an friend at his hotel and thought I would try my hand at navigating the transportation system – after all it is a well-organised city, how difficult could it be?
Needless to say I was a novice and got it all very wrong. I got on the right bus but got off at the wrong stop. I did not have a map with me and so I was not sure how far I was from my destination, but after a long walk and a short taxi ride I finally reached my very patient host – an hour late. In fact had I walked from my hotel and known where I was going it would have been quicker.
I had a mid-day flight the next morning so I spent a few hours at the most amazing exhibition space: the Singapore ArtScience Museum. The name is intentional – they believe the difference between art and science is fictitious and they strive to eradicate the forced separation. There are permament displays of the work of artists (Leonardo to name just one) and scientists whose work span the divide. And all this in a building that is itself a work of great beauty while being an engineering feat, art and science married yet again.
Despite what appears to be an awkward space, the museum has four stories of very good exhibition space which allows plenty of natural light to filter in through the long lily leaves which give it that distinctive look. It sits on a lake across from the main city area, so it is truly a floating water lily. Behind it towers the controversial Marina May Sands hotel which is either a brilliant design achievement or a permanent eye-sore on the Singaporean horizon. I spent a few minutes in the Marina Bay shopping centre which is vast, expensive and pretentious. The hotel is apparently very similar.
But other than the permanent exhibition at the museum there were two additional temporary ones which I eagerly attended. The first was a huge audio-visual Van Gogh display. There were none of his originals, but a very informative description of his life, work, influences and style. This was followed by enormous projections of his works on various surfaces and screens in a darkened arena. The display was dynamic in that each surface showed a different element of the painting and, seen as a whole, one was exposed to his colour and style in many ways: all of this accompanied by appropriate classical music. It was a wonderful experience. I sat through three cycles just to see all the different facets of the works. Halfway through the display a group of about 6 mentally handicapped children and their carers entered and watched the show sitting on the same bench as me. They were enthralled by the sensual bombardment. Although not able to understand more than the colours and the sounds those two elements in themselves were sufficient sources of stimulation – an important message, I think.
But the main draw card was the Dali exhibition – this time of real pieces, and hundreds of them. I have no idea how they managed to gather so many pieces in one place but it was a huge, flowing exhibition of many hundreds of his drawings, hundreds again of his paintings and more than a hundred of his sculptures of all sizes.
Like so many great artists his real genius lay in his understanding of the link between his art, his audience’s expectations and his subsequent design, distribution and maintenance of the brand which is Dali – a brand that exists to this day. His work is inspired, but in some senses repetitious. His appearance is always as expected, and he was the master of the spin off – a theme repeated with variations which produced a large amount of very lucrative work while still being entirely recognisable and (arguably) easy to produce. I am not suggesting that he was frivolous, he just possessed a great understanding of what makes good art and what makes good business sense. Had he stopped being controversial in everything he said, did or the way he dressed his legacy would have been diminished. But that is enough of a few hours spent in the gallery; the real drama lay outside its tranquil, fluted spires.
I have mentioned Singapore’s Changi airport before: a marvel of commercial excess and transportation efficiency. Every brand the world can offer is there. You can be over-0charged in any currency you like. You can buy anything you don’t need and there is always time be lured into the tasteful boutiques and glistening showcases. This is for Terminals 1 – 3. Firefly airlines flies from the “budget terminal”. “Walk away!”
It is remotely situated and requires a shuttle bus journey. I am not sure about the history of the building, but I think it must either have been the original airport from the 1940s or an aircraft repair hangar. It lacks any charm, efficiency or appeal. Within this beige behemoth lies another world. Luxury is entirely absent. For food there is a Macdonalds. Not the vast range of eateries in the main terminals. Firely had one person manning one counter – on wheels. The boarding pass was completed by hand. There was a long line of people in the security checkpoint queue because there was only one, surly security guard.
Once through I had to spend 40 minutes pacing around the “boutiques” which comprised cheap or imitation goods usually found only at flea markets.
No, not Firefly, this was one with a jet engine - just a pretty shot.
After a very long wait I went through to the boarding gate. It reminded me of a 1970s hospital ward. Beige everything with vinyl tiles hallway to the ceilings. Lethargic, lop-sided ceiling fans made absolutely no difference to the stodgy air. There was a moment of amusement when the same girl who had checked me in arrived at the boarding gate pushing the same desk used to check me in – hence the wheels! We waited for another half and hour, and then she checked us all in. And then we waited again on the other side of her … there was no aeroplane to board! It had probably been swatted by a pigeon, or a lightning bolt. “Walk away!”
Eventually a twin-prop plane trundled towards us in cheerful orange livery and came to a halt just outside the window. I looked inquisitively at the passengers to find traces of injury, trauma or nausea, but found none. Boarding takes place through some rickety stairs which enter the plane where an engineer would probably have inserted a thermometer to take its temperature.
The destinations of the flights were very far off the vapour-trailed tracks, as it were; and the passengers were an odd assortment of mostly workers and the odd adventurous holiday maker. There was, as always in Asia, at least one British expat who was now settled in some obscure outpost like Denpasar (look it up, carefully). And this expat sat next to me on the plane. He was a lot less anxious than me.
Despite the engine noise and the exhaust fumes, the cramped seats, the absence of over-head storage and the apologetic demeanour of the crew the flight was uneventful. I was reassured while paging through the emergency escape card that the plane was manufactured by the most talented engineers and the finest materials – in Brazil, where the nuts come from.
On board I had a few moments to consider what had brought me here. I was booked into a hotel that later sent through a message that it was closed due to a gas explosion and recommended that I try the Grand Dorsett. It checked out OK and I looked at TripAdvisor as I usually do. There were no overwhelmingly negative reviews so I told the agent to go for it.
Many years ago the Sheraton group decided to build a hotel on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in what promised to be a burgeoning suburb. I think they regretted their decision. After many years the hotel needed serious renovation and the accountants figured that the cost of repairs was more than the predicted returns so they put it up for sale. The new owners did half their maths and bought the building. The load they got was enough for the purchase price but definitely not enough for any improvements or maintenance. So, just like so many Third World cities, the place retains all its physical grandeur but any closer inspection reveals huge cracks (literally) in the façade. Sweeping staircases abound, but the carpets that cover them are thread-bare, just like the uniforms of the check-in staff and the concierge.
I did not take photos of the hotel, but this from the Dali exhibition was how I felt.
As I stepped into my room I was struck by a musty smell of a room in the tropics that had not seen fresh air in ages. But that was the least concern. The carpet was worn through and stained beyond repair. The furniture was still sound but badly faded. Damage to the surface of the writing desk and head board had been left unrepaired. “Dingy” was the first word that leapt into my mind, mercilessly elbowing the repetitive pleading of my little voice out of the way. I called reception and asked for an upgrade to a new, renovated room. No luck, but they would send someone to help with the musty smell. A repairman arrived and suggested I open the window and he kindly left me a can of air freshener. After 5 minutes the in-coming mosquitos persuaded me to grin and bear the smell. And so it was that I ended up sitting on tiptoes on the seat (with a thread-bare towel draped over it in defence) typing a blog. I ignored the peeling wall-paper, the Poly-filla left unpainted on the walls, the aged décor and the non-functioning bath plug. I also paid little attention to the electricity sockets which were drooping out of the wall. I even laughed at the fact that when I filled the iron with water it simply poured out the bottom! It was replaced with an iron which was recently stolen from the museum.
I was booked into the hotel for two days so I thought I would make the most of the amenities. Breakfast was OK but you could see that all expense was spared. The cutlery was scratched and old, the knives blunt. The organisation was silly too – I was shown to a table only to return with a plate of food to find someone else there. When he realised what had happened he was petrified that he was using my cutlery and demanded to know whether I had eaten with it.
The gym was amazing, old machines, old towels and showers where you could hear the choirs of foot fungus singing in joyful harmony. I even ventured into the sauna, thinking that only volcanic bacteria would survive. It was grimy and derelict. Holes in the wall had never been repaired. Benches were broken, the light was in a broken housing. I did not linger nor did I dare enter the adjacent Jacuzzi which I presumed was what primordial puddles must have looked like, and I am sure they both contained similar organisms. I spent as little time as possible in the hotel. I found a shopping centre nearby and got to know it quite well.
The Sunway Centre and Casino is about the same size as the Vatican and has every conceivable shop – even a Nandos and a New Zealand Natural Ice-cream shop. After a day of work I would go to the mall instead of the hotel. To my dismay Malaysia has a strong Islamic culture which means many of the restaurants sold no alcohol. Thank God for TGIF! Beer on tap and old-fashioned American pub grub. I had a salad, a beer and another beer.
On the second night I was in the hotel and did not want to catch a taxi back to the mall so I thought I would just go to the hotel’s own Chinese restaurant.
28 tables, 7pm and I am the only patron – “Walk away!” There is one waitress and she catches my eye and I sit down with a weak grin. I chose the Chinese restaurant because I believe that most of the food is freshly prepared even if it is fried. The menu is several pages long and the range is vast – every morally objectionable dish is offered with three different sauces. Bird’s nest soup, shark-fin soup, sea cucumber and possibly dog but I did not tarry. But there were many dishes, many tables, one customer, one waitress. I did the maths and realised that there could not be much that was fresh.
I sought out the hot and sour soup (now a favourite) and chicken dumplings. For good measure I order a bottle of Nederburg wine which required the waitress to trot down two floors to the other restaurant. It is fortunately very cheap so I took a whole bottle thinking that alcohol in my veins would at least intimidate any other inquisitive micro-organisms. It was, after all my birthday and I needed some compensation for spending it is such a god-forsaken hovel.
Not all hot and sour soups are created equal, I discovered. This one’s recipe was simple: take, in equal parts, MSG, gloop, mud-coloured food dye, indescribable fragments of predominantly protein origin, 3 pieces of noodle and chillies. Simmer until a customer orders it. I don’t eat MSG as a rule because it gives me nightmares, but I figured in this hotel that would be an improvement.
I was very glad to check out of the hotel and I have taken a solemn oath to pay more attention to my little voice.
Three positive things about this trip stand out and deserve mention. Stephen Fry’s latest memoir (The Fry Chronicles) has been out for about a year but I bought the audiobook and his companionship was much appreciated as I pounded the streets of Singapore and the desk of my hotel in Subang. It is definitely worth a read. He is so typical a British celebrity: devoid of aspirations to fame, sobriety, propriety and hygiene. Anything which can take him further away from conventional behaviour or ability is embraced.
Secondly my favourite iPhone app is definitely TripCase. My travel agent gives me a code which I enter and my entire itinerary is instantly imported. It lists every hotel, its address and contact number, my reservation number, a map, local weather. For flights it has all the usual information including real-time updates (e.g. for delays), seat maps, boarding gates and terminals (but not even it knew about the budget terminal at Singapore!) but also the carousel on which one’s luggage will be off-loaded. It also sends confirmatory messages to selected third parties (Karen) about departures and arrivals. It has an expense calculator, a conversion tool for everything from currencies to temperatures (both are necessary in Asia). It even has special offers related to your trip (from airlines and hotels) it has directions, maps and traffic alerts. It even has a feature to find alternative flights in case of cancellation. It is also free! A really great app for travellers.
Finally a piece of Kiwi genius called a Swiftpoint mouse. For use in confined spaces like airplane seats but also generally for use with a laptop, it is a USB-linked micro-mouse that uses just one’s fingertips for controls and the clear surface of the laptop (next to the touchpad) as the mouse pad. It charges from nought to one-hour’s use in one minute! The USB stub that plugs into one’s computer is also its docking station to get out of the way and to charge. It is also intelligent to movement, so you leave it on the keyboard while you type and bump it around, but it won’t move the cursor unless it detects that your finger is on the right place. Just a brilliant tool – with one draw-back: it does not switch off.
I have now reconciled with my little voice. It has only gently grumbled while I have been planning my next journey (two weeks’ time). This time I take in 4 countries in 13 days. My little voice is tapping its foot, drumming its fingers on folded arms and whistling while avoiding eye contact. I am trying very hard to listen, but there’s this brilliant hotel on the outskirts of Jakarta, not far from the airport. The review says “away from the hustle and bustle of city life”. Sounds good to me.