Marina Bay Sands & Gardens by the Bay: Week 185

Polaroid of the Marina Bay Sands and Helix Bridge: Singapore

Barret grabbed the railing above his head as the train picked up speed. The Circle Line to Bayfront was an air-conditioned bubble packed full of locals and tourists. Aside from the announcements, there was also a route map on the wall which Barret used to track our progress.

“Only six more stops to go,” he whispered as he leaned in my direction.

“Huh?”

“Six more stops,” Barret repeated, but I still wasn’t paying attention. A pungent odor had drifted my way and I needed to find the source. “Hey…” I cautiously began. “Did you put any deodorant on?”

“Nope. I didn’t have time.” This declaration made Barret feel proud. It was the same kind of conflicted pride that people get when they videotape their kids redecorating the kitchen with a bag of flour. It’s a disaster, but it’s also a very well executed disaster that could go viral.

“Funny how that always happens right before we go somewhere humid.”

“Yeah.”

“You think maybe that would be the first thing on your list…”

“Yeah.”

“Yeaaaah.” It was too late to turn back to Changi Airport, where we had left our luggage for the day. “Just keep your arms down.”

Ticket for Flower Dome at the Gardens by the Bay: Singapore

Singapore is hot and muggy all year, but that doesn’t deter tourists. Respite from the temperature can be found at Gardens by the Bay. Two separate UK firms designed the massive gardens which only recently opened to the public in late 2011.

The main attractions are the two conservatories and the Supertree Grove. Barret and I visited the gardens on the only Monday in September that the Cloud Forest conservatory was closed for maintenance, so it was an easy decision to visit the Flower Dome instead.

Polaroid of succulents inside the Flower Dome: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

The garden was a beautiful mixture of plants from all over the world. There was everything from succulents and orchids to kangaroo paws.

Polaroid of small crystal garden inside the Flower Dome: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

One part of the South American display had a small crystal garden, another part had an anatomically correct cactus covered in white hairs. It was called Old Man of the Mountain.

The conservatory dome arched way above the multilevel grounds and through the glass we could see the harbor and Singapore skyline.

Ticket for the Supertree Grove Skyway: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

After spending a few hours in the Flower dome, we walked through the outdoor gardens to the Supertree Grove. This main grove has eleven fuchsia tree structures which perform a variety of functions. Some of the trees harvest solar energy and others serve as ‘air exhaust receptacles’ for the conservatories. From 9am-9pm a canopy walkway is open and at night the structures are illuminated for a synchronized light display.

Supertree Grove: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

An hour or two before sunset, Barret and I walked back to the bay to get a look at the Marina Bay Sands. It was a stunning hotel from the outside, but it was even more airy and delicate inside. From the lobby, the structure reminded me of a delicately balanced house of cards.

Lobby of the Marina Bay Sands: Singapore

From there we walked along the bay, past the flower-shaped ArtScience Musuem, and across Helix Bridge. There were several promontories along the route with great views looking back at the Marina Bay Sands.

View of ArtScience Museum and Marina Bay: Singapore

We continued walking past joggers and stroller-pushers, the people who come out for the beautiful night breeze. An amateur photography group set up on the sidewalk to capture the highrise buildings and the bay.

Our visit was just a taster of what Singapore has to offer. We wanted more time to explore the colonial neighborhoods and the vibrant Little India, but we had a plane to catch and Changi Airport had an excellent shower hire facility. There was no way we were going to miss that before our international flight. No way at all.

How to get to the Marina Bay Sands: MRT Bayfront Station

Lobby of the Marina Bay Sands: Singapore

How to get to the Gardens by the Bay: Via Circle Line or Downtown Line- Take Exit B at the Bayfront MRT Station. Follow underground linkway and cross the Dragonfly Bridge or Meadow Bridge into the Gardens by the Bay

Dress Cafe: Week 184

Polaroids of a dress cafe in Ehwa: Seoul, South Korea

“Is it ok for Barret to see you?” Amy looked worried when she saw me come out of the dressing room in a strapless wedding gown. “He isn’t supposed to, right?”

“Nah, it’s fine.” I replied as I glanced at my freckled scoop-neck tan line in the mirror. “It’s not like it’s my real wedding dress.”

Amy, Eun Soon, Barret and I were right next door to Ehwa Women’s University in Seoul. Most good university neighborhoods cater to their student population, and in this regard Ehwa does not disappoint. Within walking distance from the hallowed school grounds are nail salons, jewelry carts, cafes, and tiny clothing shops crammed with pastel blouses and hair ribbons.

While those are all great reasons to visit the bustling neighborhood, the four of us were there specifically to visit a dress cafe.

Prior to arriving in Seoul, I had lamented the fact that the four of us didn’t have any photos together. “Eun Soon,” I declared as our flight drew nearer. “We need to go to a dress café.”

“You mean the wedding one?” She asked.

“No, just one with lots of dresses.”

Barret at a dress cafe in Ehwa: Seoul, South Korea

“There are only two types,” Eun Soon quickly clarified, “hanbok and wedding.” The loose-fitting traditional Korean costumes, called hanbok, are beautiful and come in a rainbow assortment of colors. However, the idea of renting wedding dresses for a photo shoot with friends was just too oddly intriguing.

“Let’s take a bunch of wedding photos!” I decided. “Can you make a reservation?”

Tree prop at a dress cafe in Ehwa: Seoul, South Korea

We were the only customers when we arrived at the café. The term ‘photo studio’ is a more apt description, but we did each order a sweet beverage. There was a large pink flowery tree behind us and over to our right was a vanity mirror piled high with makeup and glittery tiaras. The closet next to the vanity held three racks of dresses divided into four separate price categories. The most expensive dresses cost 40,000 won a session.

When I finished my drink I picked out a dress and slid the curtain across the closet. The barista helped me into my dress and afterwards asked what size shoe I wore. “Namu kun,” I replied and she laughed at the thought of my feet being too big for the 40 odd pairs of heels on the ground.

“Well,” Amy translated, “she said you should just wear your sandals.”

Choosing accessories at a dress cafe in Ehwa: Seoul, South Korea

While I waited for the others I sidled up to the vanity to touch up my makeup and select a tiara. Almost immediately, the photographer came over, removed it, and put a different one on my head.

“OK?” She asked.

“Sure, why not.” I smiled. She then selected a necklace and clasped it around my neck.

“OK?”

“Yeah!”

A veil appeared next to my head in the mirror. Ii was long and had gauzy fabric and a lace detail along the edge.

“Heck yeah!” I wasn’t planning on saying no to anything.

While Barret was putting his tux on and selecting his bow tie, Amy and Eun Soon were curling the tips of their hair and touching up their makeup.

About an hour after we first arrived we were finally ready to go. I just don’t know if the photographer was ready for Barret.

Barret playing the piano at a dress cafe in Ehwa: Seoul, South Korea

The group posing with a boquet at a dress cafe in Ehwa: Seoul, South Korea

The dress cafe rose room: Seoul, South Korea

How to get to Ehwa University neighborhood in Seoul: Line 2 – Ehwa Women’s University Station – Exit #3

Kayaking on the Occoquan: Week 183

Polaroid of Barret kayaking on the Occoquan River: Manassas, Virginia

My parents store two kayaks along the southern side of their house. One is red, the other is orange and the both of them are covered with a few days’ worth of cobwebs. It was hard to navigate them around the corner of the house and when I finally had the right angle, I bashed into a beautyberry bush. The impact caused small purple berries and a variety of spiders to scatter across the cement.

“The spiders come be back an hour after you put them away,” my Dad warned me as he stated brushing them off with his hand. “You can’t keep them away.”

He was right but I grabbed a broom anyway. I didn’t like the idea of being trapped in the middle of the river with a spider crawling up my leg. Once the kayak was swept down I plugged in the leaf blower. The nozzle blasted all the plastic crevasses and then I positioned it so that the air created a spinning vortex of debris inside the kayak. Nimble little spider bodies swept along the walls like those dizzying theme park rides that just spin and spin and spin.

When the kayaks were as spider-free as they were going to get, Barret and I carried them down to the Occoquan. The river was one of the reasons my parents bought that house. You can’t see it from the windows, but it’s only a short stroll through the patch of trees on the other side of the road.

Because it was summer, a million miniscule bugs bounced along the surface of the water, their bodies so light that their movement doesn’t even cause a ripple. As we paddled down river we saw jumping fish and turtles resting on water-logged branches. One statuesque white heron watched us approach before it suddenly burst skyward.

Colvin Run Mill: Great Falls, Virginia

Most of the homes along the river use the water for recreation. However, it wasn’t too long ago that these bodies of fresh water were important for food and transport. The Colvin Run Mill, which is 45 minutes north of my parent’s house, is a beautiful example of an early 19th century mill. The mill is still used for grinding and the nearby gift shop sells bags of cornmeal, grits, wheat and buckwheat flour.

Polaroid of flowers at Colvin Run Mill: Great Falls, Virginia

While my parent’s bend of the Occoquan is too tranquil for a watermill, it is the perfect speed for a gentle kayak ride. There is nothing better a hot summer’s day than a shady river and the rhythmic splash of a paddle breaking the water’s surface.

How to get to the Colvin Run Mill: 10017 Colvin Run Road, Great Falls VA 22066

Neon Museum Boneyard: Week 182

Polaroid of the Las Vegas Club neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard, Las Vegas

I was with my color photo class the very first time I visited the Neon Boneyard. Even before it became a proper institution, a museum with a visitor’s center and a security guard, the Boneyard was something special.

As soon as my film was developed, I locked myself up in the photo lab. The color darkrooms were small individual rooms along a short dark corridor and they had a vinegary smell. It might not have been practical to study film in a digital age, but it felt more meaningful. My film was a tangible object that captured the jagged glass, the rusted metal, the heart and soul of Sin City history.

Polaroid of the Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

“Neon lighting took on a particular resonance in Las Vegas and in other parts of the open landscape of the Southwest. Without many trees or buildings, the illuminated neon sign could be seen from miles away in the evening. Western motels used the neon medium perhaps more than any other business. This was also perhaps afforded by the low profile of casino and motel buildings when casinos within Las Vegas’ city limits were once limited to two stories. The low, horizontal profile has allowed building-mounted signs to be seen at longer distances. Traveling north on the Strip, the neon glow of Las Vegas acted as a beacon signaling toward the city.”(Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon).

Polaroid of the Lido neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

Within the last two years, the neon collection has been split into two different yards- the North Gallery is for commercial shoots and weddings while the Neon Museum Boneyard is available for public tours. One of the most exciting new additions to the facility, which was still in the process of relocation the last time I was in town, is the visitor center. The clam-shaped lobby, designed by Paul Revere Williams, was salvaged from the demolition of the La Concha Hotel in 2005.

Polaroid of the Stardust neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

The Neon Museum Boneyard is a testimony to the ebb and flow of Vegas culture. From the atomic font of the 50s to the kid-friendly themed signage of the 90s, the history of this desert valley is written in neon. Hotels might come and go, the wedding chapel vows too, but the Boneyard will still be around fifty years from now to document the changing city. At least, that’s what I would bet on.

Polaroid of wedding neon sign. Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

How to get to the Neon Museum Boneyard: 770 Las Vegas Blvd North

Nevada Test Site Tour: Week 181

Operation Teapot - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Operation Teapot – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

You should have seen the food back then. Only $2.50!

Steak and lobster $5.00!

Then- imagine- 10,000 people,

It was a block party!

Area 23

Every month, the DOE Nevada Field Office runs a free tour of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site).

John, one of the retired employees chaperoning the tour, narrates with a touch of a Southern drawl. Over the PA system he covers both the history of the site and whether or not the camera battery is charged. “I just wait while this thing spools up,” John mumbles into the microphone. Dario, the other guide, stands up when he has something to add to the conversation.

The isolated outpost of Mercury once had a bustling hobby club, swimming pool, church, movie theater, eight-lane bowling alley, and tennis court. That was before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1992. Now, the only sign of life at the gateway to the Nevada Test Site are the two stationed guards and the woman behind the canteen cash register. She has long black hair and curled bangs.

Whenever a bomb was being detonated, all unessential personnel were sent to Mercury. Of course not everyone had been as excited as John and Dario about the nuclear test block parties. During the heyday in the 80s, the entrance to the Nevada Test Site was often filled with protesters. If they crossed onto government property they were put in a chain link pen with a port-a-potty until the police took them to Beatty for processing.

From where those protesters sat, they would have seen a nondescript desert landscape in every direction. They knew better though. Just beyond the rolling hills, where Area 23 transitions into Area 5, is a closed basin- an innocuous name for land with a water system that does not drain into another body of water and has high levels of evaporation. It is an ideal location for ensuring the quality of nuclear weapons.

Damaged Vehicles - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Damaged Vehicles – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Complex

Overlooking Area 5 is a series of benches where press and dignitaries once observed the atmospheric tests on Frenchman Flat. The warped and twisted wood planks are surrounded by green brush and little yellow signs. Caution Radioactive Material.

Our first stop is at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. It is comprised of a few cream-colored metal buildings surrounding a covered picnic table. A few employees are having a fish fry in the shade with a retiring colleague. Our tour bus pulls up to allow the manager of the complex to board.

During his portion of the tour, Jon speaks about the complexity of plutonium. He tells us that transuranic waste has a higher atomic number than uranium. Bioturbation, remember this word, is the study of the disturbance of soil. That’s why we put a four foot cap of earth on the waste; insects won’t go deeper than that.

The land is divided into ‘cells’ and within those earthen graves the waste is carefully recorded by columns, rows and tiers. Contaminated dirt goes into large white ‘super sacks’ and cranes deposit the 72,000lb casks containing hot material. Cell 19 received some waste from Dayton, Ohio. “I feel close to home,” Jon jokes.

Aside from hazardous waste, the facility accepts classified military waste. It’s more affordable to bury the classified material than it is to shred it.

Building 6-902 Wet N’ Wild

“I’ll let Dario tell you about that because I gotta call Brenda.”

Dario wears aviator glasses and a baseball cap with a roadrunner on it. He began his career at the test site in 1988 as a water engineer.

During the construction of Building 6-902, Dario had ordered a hydrostatic test on an important 12” pipeline. Some obvious part was overlooked, which makes the guys sitting next to me groan in disbelief, and 300,000 gallons of water flooded the facility.

“I wasn’t the one who forgot it,” Dario claims, but he has never lived it down. The nickname is printed on the tour itinerary. As the bus rolls past Wet N’ Wild, I see an antelope’s white bottom running through a field of lush scrub. It had rained a lot more than normal in the area.

Preparations underway for an underground nuclear test - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Preparations underway for an underground nuclear test – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Area 7 Icecap Ground Zero

The white corrugated emplacement tower is 152ft high and has a sign affixed to the front door that says no classified discussions in this building. Thick diagnostic cables snake out the back of the tower, through the desert, and into recording trailers encased within shock-absorbing aluminum honey comb. These cables would have been lowered down the ‘event hole’ to capture information about the bomb’s performance.

Operation Icecap was in the works when the nuclear testing moratorium went into effect. Had the project been given the go ahead, the 500,000lb test package would have been chilled with dry ice to -42 degrees to simulate the temperature a missile system would encounter in outer space. Because the test was discontinued the site has remained as it would have been prior to a test, emplacement tower and all.

Yucca Flat runs along the western edge of Area 7. The dry lake bed has the dubious distinction of being one of the most popular locations for nuclear tests. Out of 928 total tests, 828 of those were underground and a significant portion of those took place on Yucca Flat. Ten miles away from the peach-colored lake bed was News Nob. People like Walter Cronkite stood there amongst the Joshua trees in anticipation of an atmospheric detonation.

Sedan Crater - Courtesy of Emmet Gowin

Sedan Crater – Courtesy of Emmet Gowin

Area 10 Operation Plowshare

On July 6, 1962 a hole was dug 635ft deep. A 104 kiloton thermonuclear device was inserted and, when detonated, displaced 12 million tons of dirt. The result was one of the largest man-made craters on Earth.

In an age of unlimited nuclear possibilities, Operation Plowshare was part of a larger concept introduced to the public by President Eisenhower. The concept, Atoms for Peace, was interested in the application of cheap nuclear energy for peaceful applications: excavating land, open pit mining, and dam construction. Surprisingly though, the most promising use for underground nuclear explosions was the stimulation of natural gas production. To this end, Operation Plowshare only ceased at the end of Fiscal Year 1975.

Today, Sedan Crater is fronted by a metal viewing platform and rimmed with small puffy bushes. This is the only site on the tour where the guides are allowed to take a group photograph, but they are not allowed to show the horizon.

Loomis Dean—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Caption from LIFE. "Fallen mannequin in house 5,500 feet from bomb is presumed dead."

Loomis Dean—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Caption from LIFE. “Fallen mannequin in house 5,500 feet from bomb is presumed dead.”

Area 1 Operation Cue

Just off in the distance, on Rainier Mesa, was a good café. At least it used to be really good.

“And,” John added, “it used to have a rec center.”

John pops a DVD of archival footage from Operation Cue into the stereo equipment. An attractive young woman named Joan Collin enters the footage with a purse on her arm and a patterned scarf loosely tied over her hair. “As a mother and housewife,” Joan assures us in that soothing Hollywood accent that went extinct in the 1950s, “I was particularly interested in the food test program.”

During the early hours of May 5th, 1955, Joan drank hot coffee on Media Hill while a small group of Civil Defense Volunteers jumped into a trench close to ground zero. They had thick, bulky jackets and hardhats. “As I watched the people eating,” Joan notes after the detonation, “I realized that mass feeding would be an important job for civil defense.” The camera pans over a troop of dusty men preparing a feast made with ‘salvaged cans.’

“Don’t let me forget, Dario,” John says as he switches the PA back on, “to call Patricia to get the photos set up for us.”

Film still from Operation Cue Footage - Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Film still from Operation Cue Footage – Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

We drive into Area 1 along Yucca Flat and when we turn off the paved road the scent of dust drifts through the AC. Soon the bus is approaching a brown two story timber house. It is one of two structures still standing after the famously televised detonation of the Apple II bomb in 1955.

The structure is in relatively good condition, considering it was only 6,600 feet from ground zero. It has a red brick chimney, asphalt shingles on an undulating roof, and a reinforced concrete basement. Through the front door I see a white wood staircase and through an upstairs window I see Garfield spray painted on a wall. The tour bus slowly circles around the house. The gentle rocking has put Barret to sleep.

Although there are no more full-scale nuclear tests, the residual radiation from decades of testing makes Yucca Flat ideal for first responder training. The nearby Transportation Incident Exercise Site simulates nuclear terrorist attacks. Overturned cars, trains and shipping containers are strewn in front of a replicated Main Street. A jack rabbit hops past an airplane crash.

The Nevada National Security Site has a lot of scary associations, but those are carefully tucked away. What is visible looks as harmless as a neglected backyard with rusting cars on blocks.

I don’t know how John and Dario feel about the ethics of nuclear testing; they do a very good job of treading neutral ground. It must have been so thrillingly banal to work a 9-5 shift at a nuclear test site. I can see how easy it would have been to focus on just the science and forget the big picture.

***

Operation Ivy - Mike Shot - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Operation Ivy – Mike Shot – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

In fact checking this article, I came across a name that was familiar but didn’t mean much to me: Operation Ivy. In 1952 President Eisenhower gave the green light to Operation Ivy. Two bombs were detonated under this program in the Marshall Islands. The first one, named Mike, was the world’s first hydrogen bomb. The yield for the device was 10.4 megatons.

When the dust settled and the ravaged landscape surveyed, Gordon Dean, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, sent Eisenhower a short message.

“The island of Elugeleb is missing!”

Humankind had just harnessed nuclear fusion, the same process that takes place in the sun. I can’t think of anything more sobering than that.

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