Friday, December 08, 2006

Travellin' in Style

All this started because of a friend’s sad tale of a Bangkok trip gone awry. As she recounted for us the story of a noisy Khaosan Road hotel, of traffic snarls and taxi hassles, of falling ill after only four days, and a flight home that was delayed by seven hours (till 2 a.m. in the morning!), we shook our heads in wonder. Mid-range hotel in backpacker district, away from the lifesaving Skytrain, budget airline, she was just asking for it, we opined, even as we commiserated with her. Women over 30 should not try to rough it out, we agreed sagely, and then broke out in a cacophony of laughter.

But, seriously, roughing it out is all well and good when one is young or when one has no choice, but beyond that, one has to concede gracefully.

When one is young, the experience is all that matters. As bright-eyed bushy-tailed 19-year olds on the obligatory European backpacking trip, my friends and I stayed in youth hostels, lived on bread, and walked everywhere we went. I remember, to make our limited funds stretch for seven whole weeks, we allowed ourselves just one hot meal in every city we went to. Even so, in Paris, City of Lights and gastronomic capital of the world, we could only afford to eat at a diner where the meal of the day was hamburger! At least in London, it was beef chow mein at one of Chinatown’s notorious noodle houses. The rest of the time, we were lucky if our hostel had one of those vending machines that dispensed hot soup in a cup. Otherwise, it was bread with cheese, bread with bak kwa (which we had had the foresight to pack along), bread with more cheese… you get the picture.

And we thought nothing of walking all the way down the Appian Way in Rome to get to the catacombs. That meant walking without benefit of footpath, breathing in exhaust and dust, as overladen trucks careened at breakneck speed just inches away from us, clattering across the cobbled stones. All this, with a baguette, our lunch, sticking out of one of our daytrip haversacks, the end of it covered most unglamourously by a plastic bag to keep it from getting dirty. What can I say? We were too enraptured by all that art, and history, and architecture, to really care about these piddling matters. Incidentally, lunch that day was in a cemetery.

When one has no choice, it is amazing what reserves of resilience we discover in ourselves. We set our jaws, grit our teeth, and gird our loins like there’s no tomorrow. Once when I was in between jobs, waiting to start teacher training, I badly needed a holiday. I hadn’t had a break from work for years and just needed to get away from it all. At that point in time, funds were running perilously low and it was unlikely there would be any income for a while. So, off we went, HM and I, to nearby Bintan, on a shoestring budget no less. That meant we were of course not heading for posh Bintan International Resorts, but Tanjung Pinang and the local haunt, Trikora Beach.

In those days, for SGD$6 a night, one could get accommodation in one of Tanjung Pinang’s homestays. What we got was a room on the 2nd floor, with a queen-sized bed shielded by a mosquito net, and an archaic electric fan. (We could have sworn that Uncle Bong and wife had just vacated the room so that we could rent it.) Bath-time meant scooping cold water from a giant Indonesian-style mandi (concrete storage unit full of water), complete with fish. The latter were the size of carp, meant to keep the water free of bugs and larvae. Still, it was initially disconcerting to have to take a bath while the fish gazed on. But, as we found out later, that was (comparatively speaking) the height of luxury.

On Trikora Beach, we were amazed to find beach huts for rent at SGD$12 per night, and that included dinner for two. Now, the phrase, “beach hut”, may conjure up images of romantic getaways with thatched roofs, patios with cane furniture, and swaying palm trees. These were nothing like that. Sure, there were coconut trees but the huts were really, no, I mean, really really primitive two-storey wooden structures built on concrete bases. On the small veranda out front, there were two dilapidated chairs. Inside there was absolutely no furniture.

Downstairs was the “ensuite” bathroom and toilet, such as they were, with the ubiquitous squat pan. The bathroom had no running water, just a hip-high plastic container that the owner of the huts filled daily from a water tank, and a plastic scoop. This water supply was used for everything from flushing the toilet to bathing.

Upstairs was the sleeping area, where ultra-thin foam mattresses had been laid out. There was even a mosquito net that we could hang up. From the many small but evident blood stains on the mattresses we knew the net was a necessity, but first we had to patch its many holes with the surgical tape we had in our first aid kit. For lighting, the hut was equipped with a grand total of three 25 W light bulbs, one on the veranda, one in the toilet, and one upstairs, all of which ran on black and red wire carrying electricity from a diesel generator that powered the 8 or so huts. There was no fan, no doubt because this would have placed undue stress on the generator.

Nevertheless, we made do with the simple facilities. We learnt to bathe with 5 scoops of water, and that included washing our hair. We enjoyed the simple but tasty meals that we shared with the owner’s family. We went out on day trips to the uninhabited islets nearby with the boys who helped the family out, on a small sampan they had built themselves, where we did absolutely nothing except laze around and paddle in the water occasionally.

The most trying part was at night. By day, the beach was blessed with a lovely sea breeze, but every night, at exactly 1 a.m., the wind would drop and all would become still. We tossed and turned in the heat and humidity, falling asleep only when we became too tired to care anymore.

All in all, it was an experience to be remembered, for sure. Would we do it again? Not in this lifetime, not when we now prefer not to be grilled for hours on end under the hot tropical sun, not when we can now afford to relax in more comfortable surroundings. But back then, it was all we could afford and at least it has given stories to regale our friends with.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

To Graze is to Eat Slowly

Believe it or not, the current bout of eating frenzy was not initiated by me. HM is the one behind this series of forays into new food territory. Left to my own devices, I am inclined to re-visit the familiar, only because I hate to be disappointed. Not very adventurous, you might say, but it really irks me when a much-vaunted restaurant or cafe produces a mediocre eating experience. Throw in HM's customary finickyness about food ("Don't feel like spicy/oily/rich...") and it all just seems easier to go to a place we both like and enjoy. Anyway, she has been mighty adventurous lately, so I should not look a gift horse in the mouth eh?

Talking about horses, we finally made it to Graze for Sunday brunch. One of the Rochester quintet of F&B outlets, Graze has opened to some acclaim, mostly for its Australian cafe-style cuisine, and of course for the setting.

Like most places in Singapore, the Rochester outlets are undoubtedly prettier at night. By the cruel light of day, things can look a lot more mundane. Still, as we sat there in the courtyard 'neath the trees, it was all rather pleasant, even with the overcast sky and occasional drizzle. The morning we were there, two things marred the ambience - the noise from the roadworks just metres away on the other side of the hedge, and the music being piped through the sound system. The construction noise was actually quite tolerable (and unavoidable anyway) but the chillout lounge was just incongruous somehow. That, and the service staff.

Nothing wrong with the service per se, but there was something about the wait staff that didn't gel with the place. They were slightly smarmy and it didn't help that they were all dressed in black t-shirts and black jeans, and had slicked-back hair dos. We're sure they fit real well into the evening service, but for brunch, we have our doubts. (We suggest white aprons over their black outfits to get away from the bouncer look.) Anyway, the music, the wait staff and the, uh, patrons (one of whom attempted to do brunch with sunglasses on, despite the obvious lack of sun) made for a somewhat pretentious effect.

But the food we couldn't quibble with.

chewy chunks, with butter and preserves

homemade spiced honey - delicious!

Bread was served the moment we sat down, lovely chunks of chewy loaves that kept the hunger pangs abay while we dithered over the menu. Not that the brunch menu was extensive but it had just enough items to give us a moment's pause over what to choose - waffles, scones, toast, various combis of eggs and...

a skinny latte

The coffee was just nice, not too bitter as often happens.

cinnamon french toast topped off with cream, plus bratwurst and potatoes on the side

Scottish smoked salmon on bagel halves, with cream cheese, and arugula (rocket)

the cast iron pan aka the works

Greedy me had the good ol' fashioned fry up while HM uncharacteristically went for something savoury i.e. the bagel and lox. Our brunch companion had the cinnamon french toast which she complained was not egg-y enough.(Methinks she has french toast confused with bombay toast.) We thought it was excellent!

In fact, everything was done well, the french toast being particularly yummy, yet surprisingly, the meal did not cost a bomb, SGD $85 for the three of us. I'll concede that the drinks were expensive - $8 for coffee - but the brunch mains averaged $12 to $18. I know that's not cheap cheap, but for a chi chi upmarket joint, the bill did not make me gasp, not even flinch. For that, and the laid-back cool of the decor, we'll close one eye to the pseudo-swankiness of the place.

P.S. For those interested, reservations are a must.