It was blasphemous really. Here I was, living the Kathmandu dream and gallivanting around Europe. Yet all I could think about was home. And how nice it would be to just… sit… still. Sleeping outside train stations, paying for cold showers and eating jam for lunch ceased to carry an exotic charm. Now, home was officially three days away. Landing in Singapore, I sprinted off the plane as fast as my jet-lagged, jelly-like legs could carry me. It helped that my sister was there to greet me at the other end and thus had already sorted out a hostel, transport, dinner and other niggling minor details. I was quite happy to hang up my travel-worn Girl Guide sash and just let her lead the way. I barrelled into her arms in a sort of quasi-wrestling move. The poor bewildered sister was momentarily stunned to be accosted by the beady-eyed, long-haired, unwashed, raggedly-clothed wildebeest that I was. I believe she took a moment or two to recognise her own flesh and blood.
And so began my three day stopover in Singapore. My previous experience with Eastern culture was severely limited to the numbers 14, 22 and 23 at my local Chinese restaurant. But lucky for me, older and wiser sis could explain the basics. Rule number one: littering, spitting and jaywalking are criminal offences (and I do NOT want to offend the criminals). Rule number two: steer clear of the frog ovary soup. Rule number three: ‘democracy square’ sits next to the police station and is perhaps not the best forum for free speech.
Over three days I discovered a few gems. The ‘no trespassing’ sign that graphically depicted a stick figure trespasser riddled with bullets was particularly amusing/ terrifying. Also, Chinese opera is not for the faint-hearted or hearing-abled as it would seem.
The great thing about the Lion City is its cultural diversity. Singapore has long attracted foreign attention from China, Britain, Malaysia, India and Japan. It belies a colourful, if not turbulent, history that stretches back to the 14th Century. Which is all very nice, but more importantly has today resulted in a myriad of culinary delights. This is particularly true if you explore the less-touristy food courts. That is, the ones with concrete floors, potent aromas and which lack both English menus and air conditioning. At such eateries a massive dorsai (Indian pancake) may set you back $2 or sugar cane juice all of $3. Hence the need for expandable pants. You have been warned.
The city’s architecture likewise encapsulates Singapore’s multifaceted history. Temples of Chinatown contrast to Little India’s mosques, while colonial buildings stand against the super-sized, squeaky-clean, fluorescent malls of Orchard Road. Given its recent economic surge, Singapore also hosts its share of slick high rise towers and quirky modern buildings to pronounce its rising prominence on the global stage.
In between meals, big sis and I meandered around various parts of the city. In Chinatown we held up the Asian sized jeans and cursed our Kiwi thighs. As compensation we each bought more rip-off t-shirts than we had friends to pawn them off to. And possibly more that what the Air New Zealand baggage Nazis would allow. But they were so cheap!” we reasoned. Besides, I follow the ‘why buy one when you can buy ten and save a dollar’ ethos when it comes to shopping.
In Little India we chanced upon the Deepavali festival. Negotiating our way through the markets was an experience itself. The heady aromas of incense and spices coalesced in the tropical heat and intensified with the sheer volume of human bodies. Indian pop music rang out from a loud speaker and the crowds jostled in a psychedelic rainbow of saris. I couldn’t have been further removed from a wintry Lambton Quay if I’d tried.
Gorging and rubbing my Buddha-belly left little time for touristy things. My parents had encouraged a visit to Sentosa Island for its theme parks, butterfly sanctuary and other such tourist traps, but we chose more random wanderings for a slightly more local experience. We stumbled across amazing temples, met a particularly uncharming snake charmer, had our hands henna-d and sampled yet more local cuisine. This time a dessert of shaved ice, flavoured with corn, red beans and jelly, yes, together…in the same bowl. We also visited one of the many game arcades and posed for our very own personalised trading card. We didn’t stay too long. Everything was neon, blinking, beeping and I was on the verge of suffering an epileptic fit. Just imagine Time Zone on speed and you’re about halfway there.
On the morning of day three we were struck by a short burst of torrential rain. My first monsoon! This completed my brief Singaporean experience. The city was hot, humid, shiny, clean, bustling, intense and an arena for competing smells, sounds, tastes and views. It was an absolute delight (said my belly). And not once in three whole days had I thought of home.