Mention Asia to people who have never been there, and most of them will automatically think of restaurants serving dishes whose names they can’t remember or even pronounce. You probably know the routine: yes, I’ll have 21 for starters, 57 for main course – but not too hot, please – and 93 for dessert. But now, for the first time, we were looking forward to a trip to the Far East. Barely able to contain our enthusiasm, we started telling friends about our planned trip to Singapore, only to be met with answers like: ‘Well, we did have a few hours’ stopover there, but we only know the airport.’ Not exactly encouraging. On the other hand, Albert Birbaumer was telling us, ‘You’re going to love it!’ Which sounded more promising. After the smart-looking flight attendant in the video had explained where the emergency exits were located and the ins-and-outs of a life jacket, we pulled our belts tight and settled back, abandoning our fate for the next twelve-and-a-half hours to the laws of physics and the expertise of our pilot.
Early next morning, the view from the plane window reveals to our unbelieving eyes an airport shaped like some futuristic city from an old science fiction movie. The plane comes to a standstill, the jet engines whine and fall silent. Some of the passengers – the tourists – applaud, the rest, predominantly business people, refrain. ‘Thank you for flying with us.’ Don’t mention it. At baggage retrieval, passengers wait impatiently for their luggage. When it finally arrives, they welcome it like an old, long-lost friend and stream for the exit. Waiting for us there is Albert, who greets us with a beaming smile and a familiar ‘Grüezi mitenand’. We immediately feel at home.
Albert drives us along the coast towards the Raffles Hotel, one of the city’s most prestigious addresses, which owes its name to the British explorer and founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. The road is lined with lush green trees and brilliantly coloured shrubs. We come to a halt in front of a colonial-style building, bathed in the warm white light of the morning sun. ‘Here we are,’ he says, expelling any doubts we may have had that this exclusive-looking establishment is our final destination. Within seconds, attentive hotel staff are swarming around us, taking care of our luggage and escorting us to our room. Albert has told us to freshen up and meet him again in the lobby for a trip through the CBD Area. We take cool showers in an effort to combat the first telltale signs of jet lag and google CBD Area. ‘Central Business District’, we are reliably informed by the ubiquitous information source that has made the world’s encyclopaedias redundant. Right, off we go.
An itinerary for tourist and tradition-lover alike
‘To start with, I’ll take you through the tourist districts so you’ll know what you’re talking about when you get back home,’ says Albert wryly. ‘Then we’ll take a look at more traditional things. Agreed?’ Absolutely. Albert graduated in Physics before life took him, almost by chance, from Switzerland to the Far East, and we feel that we are in the best of hands. We emerge into the hustle and bustle outside, where the streets are thronged with countless Europeans and Americans. ‘Millions of tourists visit this area every year,’ explains Albert. ‘But real Singaporeans spend as little time here as possible. Many of them work in one of the countless office complexes but live outside the city and commute up to two hours each way.’
Albert describes Singapore as a city in which everything is higher, faster, further and bigger than anywhere else. And it doesn’t take long to find out what he means. The Singapore Flyer is 165 metres high and has 28 air-conditioned cabins, one of which we now enter. When it first opened in 2008, it was the biggest Ferris wheel in the world. A masterstroke of technology, it held the title for six years. ‘And then the Americans went and built one that’s two point six metres higher in Las Vegas,’ says Albert, gently shaking his head in mild exasperation. But his revelation does nothing to spoil the breathtaking view from the dizzying height over the city.
When we leave the cabin, the humidity slaps us in the face with the force of a heavyweight boxer. ‘You get used to it,’ smiles Albert, consolingly. By the time we are strolling through the Gardens by the Bay, marvelling at the lush vegetation and soaking up the sight of the blossoms and leaves, the fragrances and sounds, we have long forgotten the heat and the sweat.
Discovering the sights next to the water
Albert suggests a boat trip on the river, which turns out to be a fantastic idea. We sit there awe-struck as the sights glide slowly by. The Marina Bay Sands, for example, a gigantic edifice we’ve only ever seen before on the screen, its three ultramodern towers topped and interconnected by a pool complex. Or the ArtScience Museum, designed by star architect Moshe Safdie, which resembles a lotus blossom.
A little further along the promenade, the Merlion comes into view. It has stood here, spouting an enormous jet of water, for 50 years and is the symbol of the city. The fish’s body with the head of a lion allegorically connects the former fishing village (mer = sea) and the meaning of Singapore’s original name, Singapura (kota singa, the city of the lion).
The next stop on Albert’s tour is the Orchard Road. ‘This street’s over two kilometres long and you’ll find everything your heart desires. Including JURA, of course.’ His eyes light up with pride and pleasure as he shows us the spacious JURA store, suitably at home in a luxury, prime-location department store. ‘You should spend some time here tomorrow just looking around and shopping. You won’t regret it ... well, at least not until your credit card bill arrives next month,’ he grins.
How to drink coffee in Singapore. And what to eat
It is virtually impossible to process the wealth of impressions. To bring us back down to earth, Albert suggests a coffee break. He takes us down higgledy-piggledy Haji Lane, where small shops, clothes boutiques and cafés follow on, one after another, the way we know them from the Middle East. In the Papa Palheta we happily sit down and enjoy a delicious cup of coffee. ‘This is by no means normal,’ says Albert, confiding in us. ‘At many places in Singapore, you’ll be served “sock coffee”.’ Come again? ‘It’s a bit like a filter coffee, except that the filter is a special kind of sock. An unworn one, of course,’ he smiles mischievously. But here at the Papa Palheta, which roasts its coffee in-house and uses JURA machines, every variety, every blend and every roast has its own story to tell. And we are able to relish a world-class latte.
‘Hungry?’ asks our travel guide. And how! We’re big fans of Asian food and can hardly wait to sample some of the authentic stuff. ‘Splendid. In that case, Chomp Chomp will knock you out.’ Indeed, the world-famous food centre more than lives up to Albert’s promise. What a cornucopia, what abundance, and what freshness! ‘If you don’t try the grilled stingray now, you’ll regret it forever!’ And with that, Albert saves us the difficulty of making a decision. And since we’re in the business of discovering things for the first time, he orders some cane sugar juice with lemon and sour plums. Sheer poetry! Just like the carrot cake with which we round off the meal.
“Of a man who left home to teach the Asians how to drink coffee”
After eating our fill, we ride through the city to the German Centre, where Albert’s offices and the JURA Hospitality Center are located. His enthusiasm is infectious. He first came to Singapore 30 years ago, when he supervised an energy-saving project (just to kill the time while his travelling companion was in hospital, as he puts it). It was then, purely by chance and thanks to his good contacts, that he got into the coffee business. ‘The tale of a man who left home to teach the Asians how to drink coffee’ would be a suitable title for a biography that has already put out many branches but continues to grow relentlessly. Although he has put down his roots in Asia and has enviable connections, he occasionally feels nostalgic when his mind turns to thoughts of home. ‘Sometimes I miss the clichés that are so typically Swiss,’ he confesses. ‘You know: snow-covered mountains, steel-blue lakes, meadows stretching into the distance and the cows: not on the plate, but in the fields.’
Relaxation, peace and quiet: winding down the day
In the evening, we head for ‘his’ Singapore. Here, in the 23rd District, not far from Bukit Panjang New Market, (where the locals come to eat – ‘Singaporeans don’t cook at home’) is where Albert lives. And it’s just a stone’s throw from Bukit Batok Town Park, where you will regularly find him doing his yoga. With its meditative silence, it is an oasis of peace and quiet, a welcome counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of the big city. The lake, the towering rock cliff and the wealth of lush green vegetation make it the perfect place to recharge your batteries. And that is precisely what we do now: silent, exhausted but content. We thank Albert for his help and time, and take our leave.
In the hotel room, we soothe away the exertions of the long journey and our fabulous first day with a long, relaxing Jacuzzi. We place Albert’s long list of tips for things to do on the night table, turn off the light and, full of anticipation at what the next day holds, are asleep almost instantaneously.
Images: Andrew Chua & fotolia