Singapore on the Back Track
Want the full story? Click here to start with Question Authority, Question 3v3ryth1nG! - the post that started this little travel adventure.
I am finally entering the gate to Southeast Asia. The Emirates were not exactly what I had gone traveling for. In this state city, there is little to feed the stereotype of the dingy city of pirates and seafaring people, however. Singapore is a busy modern city with a reputation for strict laws that appear ridiculous. Don’t flush a public toilet: get a fine. Throw away trash: get fined. Every bathroom advertises the “right way” to wash your hands, every escalator has a sign reminding users of the “correct” way of riding it.
The more surprised am I when I arrive at the station in Little India and find trash on the street. Seems like even Singapore isn’t resistant against the Indian way of life, ey? (to be fair, there are many other places with trash around the city). My first impression of the dorm room in the hostel: one night. No more. I’m staying here for exactly one night. I’m tired, I’m hungry, I sweat, I have NO space and there are 10 beds in this tiny room. No fun. German voices everywhere, some dutch, some Swedish.
I go out, around the corner to a hawker center to get some food. A Karaoke shop closes just the moment I walk in and I get turned away. Fine, I wanted to eat anyway. On the doorstep I find a single Chinese dye (I decided it’s Chinese, since the one is a single big red dot). It shows a three. What is that supposed to mean?
Hawker centers are where you get your food in Singapore. Full stop. Around open courts with fixed chairs and tables, little food stalls are set up that offer all varieties of food. From Frog Porridge over Fish Curry, Fried Noodles, Vegetable Soup to Chinese Dumplings, they’ve got it all. This one place I’ve come to is not particularly good. After I decide not to go for the frog right away but opt for a chicken soup with Lotus roots I realize both that I am not a fan of lotus root and that it will be nearly impossible to eat vegetarian, leave alone responsible around here. Vegetarian meals are only a side note even in the Indian menus.
In this fusion of kitchens only some of its traditional elements survive, I realize. Everything is tuned to the Singaporian taste, meaning mostly that a bit of sugar was added to make the taste more pleasant. If sugar wasn’t available or suitable to the dish, chili is the choice of enhancement. I later learn that this is mostly the Malaysian influence. Singapore is a mixture of Malay, Indian and Chinese culture, with a little bit of Thai. The food is incredible, but to find Malayan food is actually kind of tough. If you do find it, the food is often ridiculously expensive.
The next day, I explore Little India on a bike. Suddenly, the world seems to be a better place. Just being on a bike makes everything look so much better. Despite the hostel managers’ recommendation to do this “experimental” Indian food thing where you get a set meal on a banana leaf (I’ve been to India, dude, but thanks for the tip), I ride past along the restaurants that follow the gigantuos shopping mall where I exchange money.
I finally enter a Hindu temple and walk around. Feels much more like home than the city has felt before. Indian spirit, people are either smiling or dead serious in their prayers. I’m lucky, it’s time for the midday prayer ceremony (around 2 pm) and before that, they offer me some prayer rice. It’s a sticky conglomerate of overcooked rice with yellow/orange pumpkin. And it’s delicious! It also comes in banana leaf paper. Take that, common tourist!
The bike turns out to be more fun, even. I explore the marina part of the city, run into a building that is topped by a ship (what?) and find out Singapore has a Formula 1 track. How could I not know that? Hm, maybe because I don’t care about watching sports. Either way, I grab my cell phone camera and shoot a fun-video. On the bike. It has hidden insider love-messages to the only thing I couldn’t quite leave behind in Germany although I quite successfully stripped myself of material possessions: the smile on Caro’s face (and the rest of her that radiates behind it). I cruise around on the track, pretending I’m a news correspondent. This IS the most fun I have had in the last week.
The adrenaline goes down and so I decide to do what I came for in this area: go up the observation wheel (how much did you say you want for that? 30 Dollars?) and see the city from the Top to get a better impression. It’s not a bad sight.
The port is filled with an abundance of ships, there are pretty green areas, living areas, golf courses aaand: the skyline. It’s actually interesting because of the architecture, but that isn’t enough to convince me to see Orchard road – the main shopping street – during the next few days. I just don’t care for shopping and all that at this point. It disgusts me. I battle the thoughts with a snack along the water and some free air Aikido. Nobody notices me until floods of joggers start to crumble in and along the bay. They must’ve all just gotten off work.
Singaporians are hard workers, Bobby tells me. He’s a Fillipino in his forties and manages a bar in China town. I meet him taking a midnight snack at a stall a couple of days later after the night market in China town. He invites me for a beer and tells me about his life, working for the education of his children. His entire family is spread all over. His brother is in the USA, one in Canada, another brother in London. He used to have a drycleaning business, got rich too fast (too good too soon, he says). Lost everything and now he is scrambling to make both his living and the future of his family. It is tough in this city. The pay is good, but he had to get used to being an employee again – and not seeing his family.
And in Singapore, you are expected to work hard. If he had all the money in this world, he would go traveling, he tells me. With his family, even his relatives. If I ever come to the Phillipines, he expects me to call him and let him know. His friend from Manila is a big shot in the major political party, he claims. He’ll show me the country from its best side, he nods assuringly while handing me his card. I take it, trying not to feel sorry for him. I’m living the life he would like to live right now. It just makes me sad to think of how a guy with such a nice heart is now driven by money, because he has to and endures a yearlong separation from his family every year, which hurts him badly. You can tell from the way he talks about it. Wouldn’t he be better off with his family? Living in the now instead of the future?
I lie awake in the dorm bed for a while that night, pondering over the conversation with Bobby and a long Skype call I had with Caro. Am I living in the now? Memories of the last weeks and fears about the future dominate my thoughts, before I fall asleep that night.
Thoughts about your own being are bad for work ethic, but fortunately Singapore offers plenty of recreational opportunities beyond shopping. Probably the most proclaimed parallel universe is Santosa Island. It’s a theme park with all kinds of different rides, shows and adrenaline thrills on a small island just off the shore of the city where once pirates used to roam and work on the rough and romantic buccaneer image the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have revived.
I crawl up the hill passing a statue of a strange animal that is half lion and half fish. It’s the symbol of the city. Strong yet smelly? Big teeth and ungraspable? Threatening yet clumsy? I can’t decide what attributes the statue wants to symbol for the city, so I continue and take a little cart down the hill to the man made beach, happily checking off the stations I know Caro has visited. Strange feeling to be walking on the same ground she stepped on when really she is far away in Germany. Suddenly, I see a view I’ve seen before. I get out my cellphone and compare. It’s one of the pictures she has sent me of Santosa via e-mail. And suddenly I enter my own emotional rollercoaster. Nothing compared to the fun rides on the island. I obsess about half an hour to find the exact same angle of the picture she has sent me. Suddenly I embrace the fake island. I find a spot closer to the port and watch the giant ships go by. I still haven’t given up the thought of living on a boat. And I can tell I am done with cities at this point once again.
Going back to the hostel, I realize there is no use in going to Melakka and Kuala Lumpur as I planned. I need to get out of this bustling, the concrete jungles, the busy streets. I need a break! The real holiday break I’ve been looking for.
I get out to get some comfort food, stroll past Chinese pharmacies (in Chinatown) and watch old Chinese men playing Chinese Chess while I am munching on some Pao, a Chinese dumpling. It is a curious site and I wish I knew the rules so I could join them in their little secluded world in the middle of the busy and loud hawker center. But I can’t tell the symbols on one stone from the ones on the other. So I just stand and watch for a bit as the old men laugh at each other, wildly gesticulating about every move they make.
…….“Take the bus at Boogey station to Jahor Baru. It’s my home town, just across the border. From there you get a ticket to Mersing. If you are lucky, you can get the last ferry to Tioman. When you are on the island, head straight to Juara Beach and stay there, you will enjoy it. If getting away is what you are looking for, Juara Beach is your best bet.” I soak up the words of the Malayan guy at my hostel reception like a sponge. “Man, I just realize, I haven’t done an island vacation in a long time. I should go to Tioman some time soon myself.” That’s it, he’s sold it. I’m off to Malaysia. Tioman Island!