Singapore: "Orchids, Lorys, Hyenas, Raffles"

May 28, 2005


Dear Family and Friends,

Whenever they get "spielkies" or get "bored," Roberta takes her grandchildren out for a "nature walk" around the neighborhood. Roberta would have made an excellent primary school teacher. Regardless, her five grandchildren and her husband, my Cousin Stanley, are all the beneficiaries of her patience and creativity.

On one day of my four day visit to Singapore, I decided on a "nature walk" of my own. I think I have seen enough temples, mosques, churches, colonial buildings, ethnic neighborhoods, war memorials and museums.

Just a word of caution, Jan. A Nature Walk here is not the same as a nature walk in temperate New York.  Go slowly!!

1. Singapore Botanic Gardens.

A true escape from the busy city of modern skyscrapers and modern traffic, the gardens typify the Singapore culture and environment. 99 44/100% clean; more than neat - orderly; insistently thorough; and as one taxicab driver described his island city-country, "disciplined." (No crime here; remember, the cane?)

Even the twenty minute drive from Changi Airport to my downtown hotel was a mini-botanic excursion down a boulevard lined with passionately pruned trees, palm trees, well-tended grass, and bushes, and violet shrubs. Not a twig out of place.

The gardens cover 52ha or about 130 acres. Green lawns, flowering plants from Asia and South America, a canopy of primary forest, lakes, and scenic spots perfect for photo shoots for newly-weds.

The highlight is the Orchiderium - 250 orchid species. The highlight of the highlight was the VIP section. Hybrid orchids are created for visiting dignitaries, politicians and monarchs. Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, and royalty from Mongolia to Japan to Madagascar.

For the first time in weeks I could inhale the sweet fragrances of nature.

I also slowly "inhaled" a sweet Asian lunch of soup Makbing (spicy lamb), beef Rendang Perankan (tender beef stewed in a rich gravy of coconut milk, galangal and exotic spices), Sayur Lodeh (mixed vegetables), and steamed rice; watermelon and dragon fruit (a soft white texture, slightly tart with tiny black seeds throughout).

After a brief rain shower, I completed my stroll and booked my next station.

2. Jurong Birdpark.

The Birdpark is the best "zoo" I have ever visited.

The world's largest aviary, covering an area of 20ha or about 50 acres, it is home to 7000 birds of 600 species, displayed in huge enclosures, a mecca for ornithologists.

Flocks of scarlet ibis, open cages of parrots, toucans, hornbills, macaws, cockatoos. Pelican Cove, Penguin Parade, Flamingo Lake. Waterfall Aviary - the world's largest walk-in aviary with more than 1500 free-flying birds with the tallest man-made waterfall in the world and a simulated seashore with a constant flow of "waves."

A World of Darkness - caged owls and other nocturnal birds of prey.

A section of diurnal birds of prey including an American Bald Eagle.

My favorite spot was The Lory Loft. Step across an elevated walkway high above the "jungle" floor. Then buy some bird food or a plate of nectar and dozens of small multicolored chattering birds come calling on your head, shoulders, arms and hands.

With few exceptions, you really can walk with the animals here.

After dinner with my friend Faye, I headed cross-town for the final station.

3. Night Safari.

Talk about a walk! With over 900 nocturnal animals of 135 species inhabiting 40ha, 100 acres of dense secondary forest, the Night Safari is the world's first wildlife park with a night view.

Three dimly lit walking trails: The Fishing Cat, Forest Giants, Leopard Trail. All the animals roam freely, kept safe without obvious barriers, and are bathed with special lighting that does not disturb their nocturnal habits.

I was "thrilled" by two species.

First a pack of hyenas. We have all seen these creatures on National Geographic, chasing down helpless victims. What is surprising, is that up close, these dog-like predators are huge, much larger than any dog I have ever seen. Up to 2.5 feet high. Larger than a German Shepherd or even a Rottweiler. And menacing. Jaws that can snap a fat African bone like a thin Reading pretzel.

My favorite encounter was a small, small!?!?, Malay Tiger, just lounging. I was hoping he would stalk about, but no luck. Later I returned, but he disappeared. The Ranger went off somewhere and flicked a couple of lights.

In a minute, with curious yellow and black eyes, gleaming white teeth and a rather long tongue, the tiger ambled over to look me over and check me out. He was as close to me as this monitor screen...with a two-inch thick plate glass wall between us. Talk about a Nature Walk. I don't think Roberta ever had this in mind.

. . . . . .

Two months earlier, on my flight to Bali, I met Faye, a charming, young Chinese-Singapore woman who was headed for a "space clearing" conference. (In my naivete, I thought she was a civil engineer.) She invited me to contact her when I got to S'pore. She and, yes, sports fans, she and her boyfriend would be my guides.

Faye and I wandered around town and ended up at a very civilized High Tea at Raffles. Sorry clothes hounds, I never did get to Orchid Road.

We also had lunch in Little India, and a couple of dinners at traditional Chinese food courts. Faye's boyfriend was quite busy; he is a music teacher, percussionist and conductor.

The most "entertaining" day of my visit was attending the The Singapore Arts Festival at The Esplanade, Singapore's unique version of New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

In the afternoon, the three of us watched a performance of "Ristorante Immortale," an improbable wordless tragi-comedy. Five talented actors wore outrageous, yet somehow real, masks. With a little simple accordion music they scampered off and on the stage through a series of doors and windows in a style combining mime, slap-stick, vaudeville. And with just plain marvelous acting, they accurately portrayed the aspirations, ambitions, anxieties and the ultimate frustration and despair of a group of employees at an unsuccessful restaurant, somewhere out in the universe.

After dinner at a delicious Japanese restaurant, we "suited up" for one of the main events of the month-long festival. The Philadelphia Orchestra. Christoph Eschenbach, Music Director.

I lived in Philadelphia from 1974 to 1979 and managed to attend a few Philadelphia Orchestra concert performances at The Academy of Music on Broad Street. Eugene Ormandy and the players had been together for many years and I distinctly recall the precision of their ensemble playing. Now, with a new conductor, and many young musicians, the sound is more exquisite and human.

The concert opened with the Dvorak Carnival Concert Overture. Spirited, rapid-fire, warm as only Dvorak can portray Czech dance themes, both real and imagined.

The second half of the program was the Berlioz Concerto for Orchestra. The musicianship of each section of the orchestra is just brilliant. The conducting, exhilarating. I don't think I have ever heard such gradations in dynamics. One crescendo rose and rose and rose through numerous levels; how anyone can coax such playing is a miracle.

The "sellout" performer of the evening was the 22 year old Chinese piano prodigy, world traveled, award laden young man, Lang Lang.

Lang Lang started lessons at three and was playing Liszt at five! He has won all the accolades and has played with all the major orchestras. He is a star. He is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.

Lang Lang played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op.23.

I remember thinking, "How can any human being accomplish such a feat?" Fingers moving like a cat across the keyboard. Hands and arms pounding out long series of obscene chords.

The answer to my question is simple. Lang Lang, like other prodigies, is a different species of human being. Born with such a talent that even if I practiced for three lifetimes, I could not perform what he did by the time he was ten.

And yet. And yet. While I applaud the technical wizzardry, I am, in the end, untouched.

I had the same reaction several years ago when I attended a performance given by the young violinist, Joshua Bell.

Who can deny the talent? The mastery. But for me, something is missing. There's no magic. I think these young guys need a few "loves" and a few "heartbreaks" to be able to get to the core, the soul of Russian Romantic music.

I hope I will hear Lang Lang again in a few years time. I want him not only to impress me but to reach down into my heart and move me, arouse me, and to change the way I hear the music. Is that too much to ask?

For now, I am headed "home" to Thailand and some nature walks down the country lanes near The Honey Inn where I can moo at the cows, chase chickens, stare down barking dogs and wave hello to the villagers.

The "music" here is charming and addictive. It's magic.


Jank. Here in S'pore, just a few degrees north of the Equator, the weather is indeed equatorial. Average daily temperature, 31C or 88F; average humidity of 85%. And these are just averages. So, take as much water as you can carry, wear a hat, stow an umbrella, and please, go 


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