A couple of weeks ago, I joined a group of students for a week in the Thüringer Wald, or Thuringian Forest. Our trip was their first group outing since Covid, and it was a delight to be in a reasonably rustic environment with young people who were both comfortable in that context and genuinely glad to be there.
This campground relies significantly on volunteer labour for renovation work and there was a great deal to do. This wasn’t the type of trip where we were doing that, but I think it would have been good fun.
It was dark at night and we were able to see the Milky Way and the Big Dipper, though my photography skills and equipment cannot attest to that. We also made a fire every night, making for a much warmer evening than we would have had otherwise. There’s poetry in sitting under the stars in the cold, but there’s comfort in sitting under the stars with a fire.
While the afternoons were largely free, we had activities planned each morning. A real highlight was the hike led by the campground director, Dagmar. She taught us about the bark beetles that are killing the young trees here in the beautiful Thüringer Wald. The devastation is occurring rapidly in part because of the monoculture that was once common here for logging. It was really sad to see so much empty hillside and to think about the consequences, such as landslides and flooding, that occur under these conditions, also making it really difficult to grow new trees. And trying to do so when they’re being attacked by bark beetles is, as we learned, no easy task.
It’s also interesting to contrast the immediate environment of the valley where our camp was situated with the forest conditions around a village just 15 minutes away by car. (And, for that matter, the stunning environs in yet another part of the Thüringer Wald where I’ve been twice to climb.)
One thing I am really enjoying about Germany is how much it looks just like you might expect from a travel brochure. A walk on our penultimate day from one town to a bus stop in another town was a lot of work on hills but they were really pretty hills.
On the last day, only about an hour from school, we spent the afternoon by a lake. There’s so much here that is a fairy tale – berries and mushrooms in forests that people just happily pick, for example – and it has been so lovely experiencing it all.
This part of the state of Thüringen (Thuringia) is right on the border with Bayern (Bavaria). You know that place. Home of Oktoberfest. Indeed.
After so much time on the Little Red Dot that is fully part of my heart, it’s a real gift to be somewhere else. I’m looking at the world with different eyes and for that, I am grateful.
Most people know that Singapore is an island off the southern tip of Malaysia. Fewer people know that Singapore has about 64 satellite islands and one outlying island. (In all honesty, I didn’t know those numbers until I looked it up to write this post.) One benefit to being in Singapore for the summer has been ample time to go exploring! This post is a quick overview of my recent travels to some of Singapore’s other islands.
I’ve wanted to go to Pulau Ubin since I first moved to Singapore in 2015. One morning, a friend and I cycled out to the ferry terminal at Changi Point, paid $6 each for bumboat fare with the bikes, and waited mere minutes until the boat left with its maximum capacity of 12 passengers (4 of which were bikes).
There are plenty of bike rentals on the island but easy enough to take our own. Much of Pulau Ubin is made up of mountain bike trails and the one benefit to rental bikes is that they’re already pretty beat up. We were there on a muddy day and mostly stayed away from the mountain bike trails but there was plenty of easy cycling to keep us busy.
In addition to bike trails, Pulau Ubin is known for fishing and camping and there is an option to spend the night. Unlike the islands that I’ll discuss below, some people do live on Pulau Ubin (population was under 40 when I checked) and there are a few places to eat and drink there. There are also picnic tables at clearly labeled locations on the maps conveniently found around the island. We brought snacks and that served us just fine.
(Thank you to my friend for the Pulau Ubin photos below.)
I didn’t take pictures (again, thanks to my friend!) because I travelled the island by bike but I do want to highlight the flora and fauna that we saw. In addition to very tame wild boar and far more monkeys than one normally sees, Pulau Ubin is home to birds not found elsewhere in Singapore and some really beautiful mangroves that have been painstakingly restored. It’s a very special thing to walk along the narrow boardwalk between the mangroves and the sea.
For those of us who spend most of our time in cities, Pulau Ubin is a chance to experience one of Singapore’s last kampongs and an environment that we do not find elsewhere. If I’m able to go back, I’ll definitely take photos.
St. John’s, Lazarus, and Kusu
These three islands sit partially inside Sisters’ Marine Park and are about 40 minutes away from Singapore by ferry. The ferries leave from Marina South Pier and move between islands according to a set schedule. One round trip ticket costs $15 and there was no fee for bikes. The islands are quite large if you plan to explore on foot but bikes allowed us to cover a lot more ground and spend time in places that would have been a little too far to walk. It is also important to note that are no shops or restaurants (and nowhere to refill water bottles) on the islands but plenty of food stalls at the ferry terminal.
Our day started out bright and sunny and it was a lot of fun to see Singapore’s skyline from the other side.
And then the wind started to pick up. The color of the water changed from blue to steel gray and clouds took over the sky. The islands we were approaching disappeared and we were suddenly very, very small.
As happens in the tropics, especially during the monsoon seasons, if it looks like it’s going to rain, it does. The question of where it rains, however, is a good one. We watched rain on Singapore while the sun came out again on St. John’s. We saw plant species that I’d never seen before and so many coconuts!
We didn’t go in the water but I did take a few minutes to make my way down the rocks as far as I could go. There are many parts of St. John’s and Lazarus that have accessible (and lovely) beaches but it’s always an experience to go look where no one is looking.
We cycled from St. John’s over to Lazarus where we found people fishing and taking advantage of largely private beach space. My favorite part was watching the sky and this is why I’m not sorry we ventured out here during the rainy season. We watched another storm roll into Singapore and then continue straight for us. The sky darkened and we chased the wind to a gazebo where we ate our picnic sitting on towels on the ground.
The rain was quick and we had time for another quick cycle. It really is wonderful to be somewhere without cars and without buildings.
The ferry brought us from Lazarus to Kusu, a tiny little island that is close enough to Lazarus to swim if you’re so inclined. It is enshrined in legend that vary in telling, but all versions contain Chinese and Malay symbolism and remain culturally significant. In the legend, a tortoise turned itself into an island to save shipwrecked sailors. In actual history, the island has had many uses over time and is mostly built on reclaimed land.
Tortoises are found all over Kusu, both real ones in a sanctuary and in the form of giant statues. Kusu is also home to a Chinese temple that is visited on pilgrimage during the ninth lunar month.
I don’t know that I’ll visit St. John’s, Lazarus, or Kusu again but I’m glad to have done so. There’s a lot more to Singapore than sparkly buildings and I’m glad to be able to share that.
I first visited Coney Island on foot at the end of March, which was shortly before Singapore’s circuit breaker began on April 7. Since then, I’ve returned several times by bike. It’s a quick little ride or a longer stroll but feels like a different world. Have a look at the blog post linked above for details and pictures!
If there’s a silver lining to Covid-19, it is that I have been forced to explore that place that I live. A friend once said, “Singapore is small enough that if someone ever asks, ‘Have you ever done…?’ you should be able to say yes.”
Over the summer, my parents and I decided that Switzerland was a reasonable “halfway” destination to spend the winter holidays. It’s not really halfway but it was so, so delightful! Now that I’ve been to Switzerland in the winter, I’d love to go back in the summer. And fall. And spring. This blog post will detail my travels through Interlaken, Bern, Lucerne, and Zurich, all of which are easily accessible by train. Be aware, though: Trains in Switzerland are not cheap. Timely, clean, comfortable, and efficient, but not cheap.
I was alone in Interlaken for the first two nights of travel. It was pouring for much of the first day but I found myself some glühwein (mulled wine) and waited for it to stop.
It was lovely in the afternoon when the sun came out.
I walked around town and took pictures of mountains, hardly able to believe where I was. I watched where the sun fell and tried to capture how it lit up the trees and the snow. It made me laugh how the grass was perfectly green but there was snow up on the mountains.
It also really tickled me to see the Catholic and Protestant churches right next to each other and to hear their bells ringing differently but at the same time.
The sun rose late (shortly after 8am) and set early (4:45pm) in Interlaken and Christmas Day was clear and cold. Around 9am I set off on a walk along the River Aare to Ringgenberg, a town about 5km away. The walk took me through little neighbourhoods by the water and in the hills. I passed a few other people along the way and perfected greeting people, “Good morning!” in German.
The main attraction in Ringgenberg was the church tower, which is open to visitors at any time. Services were going on when I arrived and it was a really special experience to climb the church tower alone and look out at the world while listening to songs that I couldn’t understand.
The sun was fully up as I walked back to Interlaken. I’d hoped for a coffee but settled myself on a log for some almonds instead.
After the best of the three rösti I had during my time in Switzerland, I spent the afternoon on a short walking trail called the Clara von Rappard loop, which took me up into the hills and the woods on the opposite side of Interlaken. There were eight historical markers with information about Clara and her life along the path, but I regrettably don’t speak German.
Once it got dark, I headed to the Ice Magic skating rink in the centre of town. I spent a few minutes watching the skaters before retreating into the tent of food and drink stalls, warmed by space heaters and fires. I stood with my glühwein at a small table in the corner and I watched and marveled.
Certain things make sense to me. Life shared with those around us, with laughter and goodwill, makes sense to me.
The following morning I took the train to Bern to meet my parents who had just landed from Toronto. The weather was cold and dreary but it was so great to see them. December 26 is a public holiday in Switzerland so much of the capital city was closed until evening when restaurants opened for dinner. We spent the day walking around and taking in the feel of the city.
We saw the little performance at the clock tower, watching the figurines in the mechanism move and dance as they have been for hundreds of years . . .
. . . examined the ornate fountains across the city, which had very cold water . . .
. . . and admired the exterior of Bern’s Minster while the interior underwent renovations.
We also went to the Einstein Museum because my dad is a math/science guy. There was a lot to read and a few videos that claimed to explain Einstein’s theories in “four easy lessons”. I have to be honest, I gave up halfway through lesson three.
Bern’s old town is built high above the River Aare and the graceful bridges made me feel like we were floating.
The next day we visited the Christmas market, which had been closed on actual Christmas. This was the first of several Christmas markets on this trip and while it was small, I was glad walking around and watching other people enjoying themselves.
Afterwards we walked out to Zentrum Paul Klee, not because any of us was interested in Klee but because the grounds are worth visiting. The walk showed us what the residential area of Bern looks like, too, which is obviously nothing like the UNESCO site old town. The museum was intended to fit into the landscape and become part of it, and there are functioning fields and gardens there in seasons other than winter.
We found a much larger Christmas market and food fair on the other side of Parliament later that day. We spent the evening there walking, drinking glühwein to stay warm, and tasting some of the many cuisines on offer.
For people who don’t celebrate Christmas, we were having a great time celebrating Christmas. Whatever is it that brings a community together in a way that exudes warmth and care . . . all of that is something I’m glad to be part of.
By the time we arrived in Lucerne the next morning, I had a pretty good feel for Swiss cities around Christmas time. And I liked them a lot. I really enjoyed Lake Lucerne and I’d love to see it in the summer. (Are you sensing a theme? Me, too.) I took a walk around the lake the second morning we were there and it was a beautiful change from the old town and surrounding city.
But let’s start at the beginning. Lucerne felt different from either of the previous cities because the old town’s narrow, twisting streets are peppered with little squares. The buildings are painted and tell stories of what Lucerne used to be. I loved looking at them and trying to make sense of the history surrounding us. I also loved eating fondue, which was our first meal here.
Lucerne is famous for its bridges and they’re as pretty at night as they are during the day.
I spent a lot of time around the lake the next day, from the aforementioned walk in the morning to a boat ride later in the afternoon. The historical narrative provided during the ride was interesting and time on the water definitely provides a different view of Lucerne and its surroundings.
My mum and I walked around at night, as well, and I really enjoyed seeing the lights and the way the colours of the sky and the water changed at the sun set. It felt like finding ourselves just peeking out from under a blanket and marvelling for the first time at the world around.
Our last stop in Switzerland was Zurich, which was very different from the previous stops. Zurich is a big, fancy city and it feels like one with designer shopping streets and luxury hotels. Naturally, the old town is beautiful . . .
. . . but it also has the signs of life that remind you that it is a living, breathing, modern place. I liked that a lot.
We walked along the River Limmat in the sunshine (our first sun in days!) and visited the Grossmünster, Zurich’s largest church with two huge towers.
My dad and I climbed the narrow, twisting staircase of one tower, which involved some negotiation with people climbing in the opposite direction. The sun was fully out by the time we got to the top and the view was spectacular.
We also went to the Fraumünster, a smaller church that used to be a Benedictine Abbey. We wanted to see it specifically because Marc Chagall designed the stained glass windows. With only one exception, they depicted scenes from the Old Testament. No photos allowed, but go visit!
I think the best spot to see Zurich is at the Lindenhof, a park built on what used to be a Roman fortification. It’s a bit like a hill in the middle of a city. Apparently hundreds of years ago, recognising that whoever controlled the area would control the city, the citizens of Zurich voted to prohibit building on the land and it has been a park ever since. There were a couple groups of old men playing chess with giant sets and a bunch of tourists taking photos, but the people-watching would probably be excellent at any time.
The Sechseläutenplatz is Zurich’s largest main square and we walked there to see the Opera House, which is stunning. Like elsewhere, there were Christmas lights and food stalls, including a few selling glühwein for takeaway. Naturally I couldn’t resist.
The next day we visited the Swiss National Museum, which is probably the best museum I’ve ever been to. We allotted two hours when we initially arrived and then extended that an hour and then another thirty minutes, leaving only because we were hungry. There were permanent collections on the history of Switzerland; clothing, artifacts and fully reconstructed palace rooms; the city of Zurich; and a portrait gallery that I didn’t get to visit, as well as a few other collections. The temporary exhibits taught us about Switzerland’s relationship with Indian textiles, and nativity scenes from around the world.
The museum was fascinating not just because of what it contained but because of how the information was presented. Each exhibit was highly interactive including stunning programs on iPads that allow visitors to look at objects up close and take mini guided tours of portions of the exhibits. There was a lot to touch and physically manipulate, as well. We were extremely impressed and learned a great deal about Switzerland in a very short amount of time. I’d highly recommend a visit!
My mum and I walked along Lake Zurich in the afternoon and the light was so pretty on the water. It was New Year’s Eve and the markets were setting up all over again, which was fun to see.
Switzerland in the winter was a cold but magical placed filled with lights and good wishes. While I’d love to see it in the summer, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the winter holidays and appreciated wandering streets that were probably less busy than they would be at another time of year. Early on New Year’s Day, basking in the week that had passed, we boarded the train to Salzburg. Stay tuned!
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place