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During the third week of January, I accompanied my daughter Renee on a business trip to Singapore. The sub-tropical temperatures, combined with the exotic flora and fauna, stood out in contrast to the Minnesota winter landscape that I had left at home.
We stayed at the historic Raffles Hotel. Located amid the skyscrapers of downtown Singapore, the Raffles encompasses an area much larger than Preston's entire downtown business district, including the courthouse square. Prior to being occupied by the invading Japanese in 1942 the Raffles Hotel was a most popular place for U.S. and British Colonial military personnel. Many of our soldiers who were captured or escaped from Singapore during World War II made a vow to return to the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel should they survive the war. To this day many veterans continue to make the journey to the Hotel for a reunion at the Long Bar.
The country of Singapore sits on the tip of the Malay Peninsula facing the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. With a population of about 3 million, the city-state consists of the main island of Singapore, which is 25 miles in length and 23 miles in breadth. There are another 60 smaller islands, many of them uninhabited, that make up the country. Singapore began as a trading station established by Sir Stanford Raffles in 1819, and in 1867 control of Singapore was transferred to the British Colonial office. Singapore eventually became an independent country in 1965.
In 1991 a multimillion-dollar restoration project returned the Raffles Hotel to its original colonial splendor of 1915. There are shops, restaurants, lounges, bars, a nineteenth century playhouse, courtyards and a living replica of a rain forest within the complex.
In the main lobby there is an open area called the Writer's Bar which many distinguished writers have frequented over the years, and subsequently made famous. Writers such as Somerset Maugham, who described the hotel as 'the fables of the Exotic East' and Rudyard Kipling was quoted as saying, 'when in Singapore, feed at the Raffles.'
On our first afternoon, while Renee was off at a business meeting, I seated myself in a comfortable chair beneath a sign that said 'WRITERS BAR'. The place was empty except for the bartender, so picking up on the writing tradition of the Raffles I placed a fiction manuscript of mine on the table, ordered a drink, and proceeded to write. Several drinks later a dapper looking man and an attractive lady, whom I assumed to be his wife, sat at a table nearby. Two young men in there twenties both dressed in something akin to colorful Swiss yodeler outfits accompanied them.
Now being quite inquisitive, and by then experiencing a bit of the warm feeling, I felt free to engage them in a conversation about the significance of their outfits. The dapper man and his wife, who I found out to be Werner and Gertraud Brombacher of Owingen, Germany, immediately invited me to join them at their table. One of the young men, Grob Mario of Sirnach, Germany, said "We have completed our apprenticeship as carpenters and are working our way around the world. In Germany it is called "traditional traveling" and we must travel for two years and three months."
The other man, ThorSen Nieimomuz from Switzerland, smiled and nodded in agreement. With help from Werner, who spoke very good English, I enlisted the carpenter's story from them.
After apprenticing as carpenters, they go around the world and work. When they find a job they must work for two months and then must pack up and go on to the next country and work. The clothes are traditional - carried down from the middle ages. The design originated with the Hamburg ship workers. The lower trouser legs are very wide so they can easily be turned up when the docks became awash in water. Grob and ThorSens' specialty is roofing and staircases. They first went to Geneva, then to Frankfurt then to Kuwait. They financed their entire trip from their work.
While 'traditional traveling' they may not be married, have a family, cars or any debt. They carry all of their belongings for the entire trip rolled with a long stick in a large cloth. They were next going to Malaysia because in Singapore most of the work is with concrete and steel. 'Traditional traveling' is one method for them to obtain the many qualifications needed to become a master carpenter.
At some point during the event Renee returned from her meeting and joined us.
Werner, a fun loving storyteller, began telling stories. He told one exciting tale about how, while wearing only long underwear, coveralls and a jacket, he had flown a glider 1500 feet above the Materhorn.
I told a few Jailhouse Stories (they loved the Doctor Nehring stories); and Werner demonstrated his "Whoee Machine". A short stick with a little red propeller on the end that would reverse direction whenever he raised his right leg and said "Whoee."
I expect we were both somewhat loose of tongue and loud of voice as our stories became more spirited and loud as time went on. Shortly before we were about to depart, Werner reached over and plucked a petal from a red rose on the table. He put it to his lips and blew across it creating music. He played the Star Spangled Banner, blowing across the rose petal, as clear as if he were playing a clarinet; an ability he said that had been passed down through generations of their family from father to sons.
As we began our exit, a robust round of applause broke out from the tourists, spectators and hotel staff that had gathered in the lobby to observe our goings on. For me it was the climax of a grand afternoon.
I suppose in our own way, the six of us left a bit of ourselves at the Writers Bar that day. For nearly two hundred years, stories, music, and fun-loving laughter have always found a home at the Raffles. Surely one of the great landmarks of the exotic East.
By Neil Haugerud