Cheng Chin Yuen

Saturday, August 06, 2005

First Stop

Friday, August 05, 2005

Fate and Friends

Unable to afford a direct flight to Paris, we had to fly Emirates (which, ironically, is currently ranked above Singapore Airlines), which entailed a 3 hour stopover at Dubai before changing planes. Exhausted by the time we reached Dubai after watching two consecutive in-flight movies, we drifted off to sleep on the comfy inclined chairs in the transit lounge, conveniently assuming that one of us would be responsible enough to watch the clock. Well, NS had taught all Singaporean males(and the rare but highly prized female) to fall asleep anywhere on the planet but unfortunately not to wake up 15 minutes before departure time in Dubai.

We, were briefly reprimanded, flatly denied boarding, had our baggage removed form the plane and found ourselves stuck in dearest Dubai for another 7 long hours! Fortunately, being boulderers, we could live with a minor non-life threatening hiccup like this and decided that we would, in typical Singaporean fashion, use our time productively and do some sightseeing in Dubai, which looked like a desert city from the airplane’s cameras. After 600 metres of travellators and 4 security check points, we were finally out of the airport to find that Dubai WAS indeed a desert city with 40 degree air temperatures to match! Realising that there were no raintrees to provide shade and the cost of a city bus-tour would eliminate 80 percent of our travel budget, we abandoned our sense of adventure and went back past 600 meters of travellators, 4 security check points and unanimously decided that we would be better off resting our aching bodies on those comfy chairs. Well, we learnt a couple of things:

A) Dubai is probably the best place to get skin cancer. No wonder the locals are all wrapped up.

B) The women manning the airport counters all apply a noticeably thick layer of makeup and foundation and don a ‘you-had-better-not-mess-with-me’ expression. They don’t smile much…at least to 3 Singaporean guys…or maybe its us.

C) Dubai airport looks like a giant cocoon with a small rocket(control tower) attached at one end. You have all the planes docking on the flanks of the cocoon and the longest underpass you have even seen linking the cocoon to the passport control. They are also building a new terminal which is bad news for Changi.

D) Our McChicken Foldover here is their McArabia there and it tastes good…and a the non-upsized meal costs about 8 bucks!

E) The local currency in Dubai(Dirham) has no numerals on its coins. It’s funny when you buy a McArabia and you are handed these bunch of identical coins which doesn’t tally with the change. They seem to round up or round down to the nearest 0.50 cents.

F) There are many people of all nationalities sleeping on the floor while waiting for their flights.

This was the first time I have missed a connecting flight and I vowed never to miss one again till we met Herni Martinez…

As a result of our little delay, we found ourselves at Fontainebleau’s train station at 11.30pm. It was cold and windy. We were huddling at the bus-stop all ready to make it our temporary shelter for the night when a young French man observed us from a distance, and came up to us and asked in perfect English, ‘Do you need help?’ We asked if there was a campsite nearby and told him that we were all ready to brave the chill and sleep over at the bus-stop if there isn’t one.

‘If you don’t mind, you can sleep in my cellar. My house is 20 minutes from here.’

At 11.30pm in the cold, these few words were extremely uplifting to our three Singaporean souls.

After 20 minutes of brisk walking, we arrived, breathless but in high spirits, at a cosy 3 storey corner house close to the town centre. Henri introduced us to his father, Robert, who was an avid mountaineer and had a crushing handshake, and led us down to the cellar. It was unfortunately not filled with wine but converted to a small computer workstation and TV room. After a bit of rearrangement, we had ample space to sleep.

We experienced the best French hospitality from the Martinez family. Whoever said that the French were snobbish? They offered us use of their bathrooms for showers, an excellent breakfast in the morning, showed us where the car-rental companies were and even went out of their way to send us to our campsite! Henri was also a boulderer so there was a lot in common. They found it quite amazing that we were in Font just to climb for 6 weeks.

We agreed that it was a nice twist of fate that we missed our connecting flight. This little adventure with Henri and his family was well worth the 7 hour wait in Dubai. Encounters like these add so much flavour to the trip. The conversations we had with the Martinezs over breakfast gave us so much insight into the French way of life and we too, gave them some idea of what Singapore was like. We got questions like, ‘So which part of Singapore are you from?’ which were really amusing.

This experience also reminded us of how we should treat people. Henri didn’t care that we were Chinese and came from halfway around the globe when he offered his unique brand of accommodation and hospitality. He was really polite and even offered to help us with our baggage on the way from the station.

This set the tone for the entire trip and we subsequently made an effort to be friendly and helpful to others we met along the way. It was good that we met Robert (Henri’s dad) too. It reminded me about the importance of good parenting. Robert displays the energy and enthusiasm of a young man. His love for nature and the mountains has obviously rubbed off on his son. And Henri says ‘Robert(It’s funny how he calls his dad by name) is amazing! He has all these books and reads them really fast!’ Robert leaves us with Henri after breakfast as he has to help his daughter with her German test in a couple of days.

I am very fortunate to have a fantastic Mummy and Daddy too.

Thank you Henri! We hope to see you in Singapore someday. Posted by Picasa

On the steps down to Henri's cellar. Notice the climbing holds screwed on the walls! You can climb down just using these handholds. Trademark of a hardcore climber.  Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Thanks Brandon for sharing the poem!

This bridge will only take you halfway there

To those mysterious lands you long to see:

Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fairs

And moonlit woods where unicorns run free.

So come and walk awhile with me and share

The twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known.

But this bridge will only take you halfway there-

The last few steps you'll have to take alone.


Why 'fivetospare'? The title came about when I realised that the last 5 to 10 minutes of most of my lessons was really unproductive. The students were saturated. So I began flashing interesting photographs and video clips and describing the special experiences and perceptions associated with them. It was a really effective 'wind down' to the intense Geography or English Language lessons. These 'last 5 minute' segments became something the kids looked forward to and it evolved to a plethora of healthy 'beyond the textbook' activities like problem-solving, riddles, sharing life experiences, planning class outings etc.

We all need a little time out at times and 'fivetospare' would be an interesting healthy break from the crazy world if you had five to spare. This site will focus mostly on the positive side of life and will contain minimal complaints.

I like the the phrase 'five minutes to spare' because usually, it ends up being more than 5 minutes and I am sure if we are all willing to give a little time to someone or something that needs our attention, we would make more good friends, learn much more and enjoy this game of life!

No tripods are allowed beneath the Arc, cameras are OK. Can you believe that? Posted by Picasa

The Spirit of the Olympics! Posted by Picasa

Visit Posted by Picasa

666 panes of glass? Really? Posted by Picasa

Notre Dame by night. Posted by Picasa

Hitching with Ricky Martin! Posted by Picasa

How much further Papa Smurf? ...only 4,5 hours! Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 01, 2005

School of Rocks : Bouldering in Bleau

“Six weeks in Fontainebleau??”


“Only in Bleau??”


“Wow, you guys must really like bouldering!! By the way, what is the capital of Singapore?...”

This is an integral part of most conversations we had with the French locals on our recent bouldering trip to Fontainebleau, a pristine forested area southeast of Paris which houses more than 55 clusters of limestone boulders in an area approximately the size of a third of our lovely island.

Most travel agencies would scoot you seven times around the world in six weeks. For us, it was another semester in the School of Rocks, pitching ourselves against the thousands of boulder problems there. Here’s a little insight into our obsession with the sport.

What is Bouldering?
Bouldering in its most simplistic sense is well…climbing a boulder(a large piece of rock) from its base to the top without the use of rope or other climbing aids. It is not as reckless as it sounds as most boulderers would not attempt to climb boulders which are too high (1 to 2 storeys would be the average) and our falls are cushioned by crashpads, a kind of portable compact mattress placed beneath the boulder.

What are Boulder Problems?
Some boulders can be much bigger than the average terrace house in Singapore. Often the sides of these monsters are not smooth and the myriad of edges, cracks and pockets on different sections of the boulder offer several routes to the top of it. These routes up the boulder are called boulder problems.

Boulder problems in Fontainebleau have a difficulty range from 2a to 8c. The grading system runs like this…2a, 2b, 2c, 3a, 3b, 3c, …8c. A ‘+’ is added after the letter if the difficulty falls between grades. 2a being the easiest and 8c being the hardest so far. Most boulder problems are well-organised into circuits and colour-coded according to the level of difficulty. You do not need to climb hard grades to enjoy climbing here and there are plenty of problems to cater to boulderers of all levels.

What makes Fontainebleau special is the exceptional quality of boulder problems and its technical style of climbing which evocates the use of balance, economy of strength and footwork to get up the boulder gracefully over brute force. Herculian strength may get you up the boulder problem but it would not get you up nicely. This is where the beauty and grace of bouldering lies…to make a difficult moves seem effortless!

Often enough, we were literally shown the way up by men and women old enough to be our parents after cranking and hyper-ventilating on a technical problem. There are even boulder problems marked out for young children on the smaller boulders! Its no wonder the French are among the world’s top climbers with the School of Rocks right in their backyard!

Bouldering Benefits
Anyone who is serious about a sport would know that inevitably, it shapes your character. When you spend hours over several days revisiting the same boulder problem, giving close to 30 attempts and shedding precious finger-skin to overcome that 8 meters of vertical space, you do learn something about yourself.

Determination is certainly one attribute you must have as a boulderer. The other is brains. There are usually more than one way to overcome the boulder problems and you must possess the mental determination to find the one that suits you most. One highly disciplined boulderer I know aptly sums up, ‘Climbing is like playing chess with your body.’

Bouldering also frequently humbles you when you are ‘sandbagged’ by the boulder problem and you realise that there is no way in the near future that you are strong(or smart) enough to finish that particular problem. We need to consult other boulderers or patiently return to the climbing gym and rethink methods and training regimes to iron out those specific weaknesses. Some boulderers fall trap to ‘grade chasing’ where the boulder’s priority is to up the level he boulders at to the point where he forgets to enjoy the act of bouldering itself. In many ways, bouldering does toy with your ego, boosting it and simultaneously keeping it in check as you wander in these playgrounds of stones.

Sometimes we really become extremely frustrated with an unfinished boulder problem, especially when we come really close but never seem to be able to finish it. Handling this frustration(or even anger in some cases) is a valuable lesson. To be able to say, ‘Wow, that was a great problem with some really cool moves!’ even though you did not finish it and move on to the next one is what bouldering is about. You can always return to clear up this ‘unfinished business’. The boulders will still be there.

The best bouldering offers is the sheer intensity you get in its simplicity. It is unbelievable how much ecstasy surges through you by just making a few moves on a big rock. It is something impossible to put in words.

Why travel 10,000 kilometres to boulder when you can do it here?
There are a couple of good bouldering gyms in Singapore but nothing beats the outdoors. Here are some good reasons:

Gyms are limited by the fixed wall structure. The fixed angles of the climbing wall pretty much pre-determines the style of climbing. The limestone boulders, moulded by nature, come in all shapes and sizes. You will need some basic strength to conquer them but you will also need plenty of imagination. The variety of handholds and moves you will find on these boulders will outclass most gym problems.

Gyms walls in Singapore tend to be steep and overhanging. This implies that you will need a fair bit of arm power and upper body strength to climb. Most climbs in Fontainebleau are vertical or even, inclined inwards(slab climbs) so you do not need bulging biceps to enjoy climbing here.

Gym walls in end in a roof or a large finishing artificial hold. On natural boulders you will get the experience of topping out (the part of the climb where you overcome the topmost portion of the boulder). This portion is often the most exciting and difficult part of the climb as you will be way above ground zero and you do not want to fall. You will feel fear(as your crashpad will look quite tiny from up here) and fear will make you feel alive.

Gyms are not surrounded by trees, birds and fresh air.

But…France is expensive…money no enough…
I spent a grand total of S$2422 for six weeks including airfare(S$1367), groceries, two weeks of car rental and two days in Paris. Camping is the only way to go if you are on a shoestring budget. Six weeks worth of pasta meals and canned food, sleeping in a tent, hitching-hiking and bathing in cold water, squatting under a tap, is boot camp to most Singaporeans but it is all part of the Fontainebleau bouldering experience.

There is a certain purity to long-term camping. It brings you back to basic living. You eat healthily, forget the taste of coke, escape the blare and glare of television, interact with the many vivid characters at the campsite, do your laundry and get loads of sleep once it gets dark. The French love their woods and camping. Singaporeans have no woods but I think we all can still learn to love camping. The opportunities are definitely there for us..

Fontainebleau is a large area. Being conditioned to Singapore’s excellent public transport system we are used to getting to places really quickly. This is not the case there where buses are infrequent and taxis are really expensive. In the first two weeks of our trip, we had a car so getting around was easy. For the following two weeks, we tagged along with our Irish, German and Israeli campmates who kindly took us with them in their vehicles. In the final weeks, we were on our own.

After a four and a half hour walk to the nearest bouldering area, we realised we had to find a better way to get around or collapse from exhaustion, decompose and become one with the forest. That’s when we decided to try our luck at hitch-hiking.

If Singapore is the worst place in the world to hitch-hike, France must be the best…our longest wait was 23minutes, and our shortest, a mere 2 minutes! A couple of drivers even went slightly off-route to send us to our destinations. We had rides in Jaguars, Volvos and in the unavoidable Renaults and Citroens!

The French drivers did not seem to mind that we weren’t exactly clean and that we had a bulky crashpad with us. They were quite happy to have someone to talk to along the way. Who ever said that the French were proud?

If you have time, you do not need a car. Stick out your thumb, BIG smile and be patient. France is expensive but there are ways around it if we are willing to adjust our levels of comfort. Bouldering is probably one of the most economic sport in the world. Stop eating fast-food here and you will be there in no time.

Alternative Bouldering Areas
If Fontainebleau is not for you, try heading up to Tampin, Malaysia. The rough granite boulders here are much tougher on the fingers but it will definitely be a cheaper alternative even after the emergence of the new ringgit. Climbasia(a pleasant bouldering gym in Rangoon Road) does trips there now and then.

Castle Hill in New Zealand is a fantastic spot. It has four main areas each containing about 3000 problems of various grades. Camping is free but you will need to rent a car here though as there fewer people here in general and it is a 7 day trek to the nearest grocery store.

Me crimping on tiny edges on a 4c slab!  Posted by Picasa

Rong Hui just below the crux of Marie Rose, the first 6a in Font. Posted by Picasa

This one goes up 3 storeys!! Posted by Picasa

Me on a 5c slopey arete. Beautiful surroundings! Posted by Picasa

Rong Hui flying high on Jetset, 7a Posted by Picasa

Jay Koh cruising the Cul De Chien Roof, 7a  Posted by Picasa

One climb too many... Posted by Picasa

One of Nature's wonderful sculptures! Posted by Picasa