Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Almost first class

7:34 am, 15 Dec 2009, on the upper deck of the train from Geneve to Zurich Frughafen, the airport. There is wifi available but you gotta pay. It’s already been about an hour on the train. Another two hour and 20 minutes to go. All trains go to the airport.

Swiss is famous for its precision timepieces (watches, if you please). And the public transport are also precision time pieces. Trains arrive and leave on the dot, according to schedule. Well, almost. Yesterday on the return trip from Gruyeres, the train was late by more than 5 minutes. This morning, I looked at the clock at the station. It was only 5:35 am when the train started moving. It was three minutes early.

I look around, many are reading, others dozing while sitting up.  A girl is stretched out on the circular couch. Yes, it’s very cozy up here in the train. It’s pitch dark outside even though it’s 7:41 am. OMG, I just realised it’s 7:41 am and I have been on the train for 2 hours! I slept for 2 hours and thought I just doze off for awhile. So, another hour or so left of the train ride. My god, I could have slept all the way to St Gallen (that’s where the train is headed after the Zurich airport).

Just bought a coffee from the passing vendor. Freshly made with a portable machine. Not your stale coffee from a termos. Now I can have my breakfast with Knackebrot, some kind of cracker I hijacked from the hotel near the Zurich airport on the way to Bucharest.

Public transport is a “right”, in Geneve. If you have to take a very very early morning flight from Geneve airport, there is a taxi service which you can call and you pay only 15 Francs (which I assume is dirt cheap). The city will pick up the balance of the bill. Why? Because the city does not provide public transport for you to the airport at those ungodly hours. You can get around practically everywhere with the trains, trams and buses. Coming in to Geneve at the airport, remember to pick up a free public transport ticket, valid for 80 minutes. A ticket costs 3 Francs, valid for 60 minutes. You can get a day ticket from 9 am onwards for 7 francs. A whole day ticket is 10 francs. Pretty expensive but locals get concessions by buying a yearly subscription which entitles them to half-price on all tickets; all tickets anywhere. It’s all based on the honour system. I have nevered been checked for tickets while on the trams. Only on the long distance trains do the conductors come around. And they are so nice. Bon jour. Merci. Everyone’s friendly. Even when we were doing a two hour walk in the countryside of Gruyeres. Everyone passing by greets each other with a smile and bon jour (it reminds me so much of “Beauty and the Beast”; you know the singing at the town fountain?). That’s why they have the second longest lifespan in the world, after Japan.

8:07 am, and still dark outside. It’s winter. It’s been freezingly cold the last 2 days. My niece, Janice, says the weather has been “unacceptable”. Yesterday, the temperature dipped to -3 degree C when we were out in the countryside. We visited the Medieval walled city of Gruyeres, perched on a hilltop. A one-street town which is totally dependent on the tourist dollar. You get not just a sense of history but lovely panoramas and vistas. And the air is so fresh, except near one farm house where we smelled manure – cow dung for sure. This area is milk country and famous for it’s cheese. You can see cheese being made and the audio and video guide is quite fun. It comes with a small sample of cheese, aged 3 months, 6 months and 9 months (I think). It’s true. Milk can taste weird if the cows eat rubbish. Here, the cows get a variety of nice smelling grass and wild flowers. I love the exhibit where you can smell the wild flowers and plants which the cows eat with the grass.

For lunch we had fondue and resti. Fondue is a pot of boiling cheese (they add other stuff in it too). You take pieces of bread or tiny potatoes and dip in. Not bad but I wouldn’t have it as the only dish for lunch. Resti is also very traditional. Shredded potatoes underneath (baked), ham and a fried egg (sunny side) on top. And beer of course. And then we missed the 1 pm bus to the ski area. Next bus 4 pm. They reduced the frequency of the buses because there’s no tourist around - makes sense for them and good for (less) global warming. The snow is about a month late. So, we went for a long walk, recommendations of the lady at the tourist information. Met many walkers, old and young. And I wondered where they came from. Locals? Or tourists? It does show that the people are health conscious. Quality of life is not just the appliances you can buy for your homes.

8:29 am, now at the Zurich HB station. Then to Zurich airport. People get on and get off along the route. I guess they are travelling between cities to get to their offices. They all seem very relaxed, calm. There’s no mad rush. That’s because of the Swiss precision time pieces. You know you will never be late (at least not too late) when you travel by public transport. Going to stop for now and get ready to disembark at the airport stop. I shall be back.

10:49 am, on the ground in plane, flight SQ345 to Singapore. I am glad I chose a window seat this time. Zurich is saying goodbye to me with pretty snowflakes outside my window. It had snowed a few times in Geneve. When I was outside the “Broken Chair” sculpture outside the UN building heading for the Red Cross Museum, it snowed. I haven’t seen snow for a long time so I wasn’t sure if it was snow or rain.

1 minute to flight time. 10:54 am. Time to close my notebook for take-off.

3:35 am, Singapore time, somewhere 11,200 metres above the Andaman Islands; travelling at almost 900 kph; distance travelled almost 9,000 km. Another 2 hours or so to touch down at Changi. Despite the delay of almost half an hour at Zurich to de-ice the wings, we will arrive a little ahead of schedule. Celine Dion on the headphones, inspiring with the Titanic theme song. The lights have been switched on throughout the cabin. It’s time to feed the passengers again. The food is so-so but the Singapore Girls are gracious and obliging. Just ask and ye shall have. The entertainment sucks. Well at the least the movies are uninspiring whether English, Arabic or Hindi. I gave many of them 5 or 10 minutes and gave up. Watched only one full movie; “Beyond Reasonable Double” starring Michael Douglas. Poor acting. Poor story. Probably the most memorable part of the movie was at the very end of the movie as the very pissed off heroine was about to leave the house (with the police siren and lights flashing just outside the door) and she turned and stood at the door way and said : “One last thing”. A short pause. “Fuck you”. I thought that was an appropriate label for the movie and the acting (including dear Mike).

My gracious hostess just asked me to choose my breakfast. I asked “which is better?”. She preferred the fried rice, “but its up to you”. I went with the fried rice. “Did you manage to get some sleep?”, she enquired. “Yes I did. It’s almost like first class here”. She smiled and waved at the comfortable nest I have made with the three adjoining seats I had commandeered. Time to see if she was right about the fried rice. Oh, the planes now come with plug-in points to juice up your notebooks. Next thing they should have is free wifi. Let’s see which Airline figures out that first.

4:16 am. The fried rice was a good choice, but more so for the two or three siau pai chai (green leavy vegetables). I did have Chinese noodles on the last night in Geneve and it was quite good and according to my niece the price at 17 francs is cheap. We also had Vietnamese Pho the previous night. Of course I always give first preference to local food at the beginning of my trips. And then I crave for Chinese food.

Geneve has been fun though it was quite a lightning visit. Didn’t walk as much because of the extreme cold. I did three museums on the first day while Janice had to attend a Sunday strategy session at MSF (Medicins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders). The Red Cross Museum cost 10 francs but it was worth it. I renewed my connection with the Red Cross or in our case, the Red Crescent. I was a member a long time ago in high school. In fact, I was the Chairman of my school’s Red Crescent Society. But I don’t think we did justice to the humanity and humanitarian ideals of the original founders. All we did was to be on duty during sports day in case somebody had cramps or collapse or was hurt. Yes, we knew all about Henry Dunant and the Battle of Solferino but seeing the exhibits puts things in context. The message of humanity and humanitarianism came through loud and strong. Henry was so moved by what he saw in the battlefield that he wrote a book on Solferino. And then sent the book with letters to key people to urge the convening of an international conference to set up a body to help the victims of war. He was the founder and mover. But as the effort progressed, he was ostracised for the failure of a bank of which he was a director. He was literally chased away but he did not give up. He continued to organised his own efforts to help victims of war. Many years later, a journalist tracked him to a hospital. He was then “rehabilitated” and honoured for his pioneering work in setting up the Red Cross. He became the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The sign of the red cross on a white background (the Swiss flag) is synomynous with peace and neutrality and service to humanity. But of course Switzerland is also a “land of crooks”. What?! Apart from the precision timepieces, the Swiss army knife, and the glorious chocolates, Switzerland is also famous for its legendary secret bank accounts. (Most) people who have secret bank accounts obviously are hiding from the law right? And those who abate them are what the lawyers would call accomplices, right? OK, lighten up. It’s a half joke.

But chatting with my niece about her work with MSF has been enlightening. Running humanitarian efforts is monumental work involving hundreds of millions of dollars. It requires ingenuity and perseverance and political muscles. Take the HIV effort for instance. Because the drugs are patented, it used to cost about USD10,000 to treat a patient a year. MSF then worked with a drug manufacturer in India to produce a combination cocktail of three drugs at a fraction of the cost. What fraction? Less than 5% of the original cost! (i.e. USD350). How’s that possible? Cost of production is lower in India is one thing but MSF also employs Indian lawyers to challenge the drug patents in India. But what happens if the drug companies win the patent registration in India? It seems that the law in India allows the country to force the drug companies to give them a special license to produce the drugs (at lower royalties, I presume). (Kelly Clarkson now in my ears).

MSF is also spearheading an effort to pressure drug companies to put their patents into a pool so that drug manufacturers can produce combination drugs at cheaper costs. Typically a HIV patient needs a cocktail of 3 to 5 drugs from different companies at very high prices. Very powerful people (donors) are behind this effort. Of course there is also strong opposition from donors who are out to protect their Intellectual Property rights (notable ones being those behind the Windows. Get it? Windows?).

Running a world-wide humanitarian effort requires hundreds of millions, perhaps billions. It also requires political clout. And the right people pushing the effort. And lots of imagination too. I learnt that many countries committed to contribute 2 or 3 dollars for every plane ticket that is sold. The money is put into a pool and recipient countries can draw from this pool to buy drugs to treat HIV patients in their respective countries. I wonder if Singapore and Malaysia are one of the donor nations? And I wonder how USM can help the bottom-billion?

5:09 am. About a half hour to landing. Time to stop. Will try to upload at Changi. In the meantime, an early Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Thank you to all for reading. And thank you for your comments on the blog. I read them all even though I do not normally response. I accept whatever point of views you have expressed.

 A vista from the old castle.

Beautiful sunlight shining down on the castle.

Janice with fondue and resti for lunch at Gruyeres Castle, a one-street medieval town.

Health tourism? Long walks in the freezing cold gives you a spa as well. Your face feels cold and fresh.

 uploaded at Changi Airport, 7:04 am 16th Dec 2009

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