Saturday, May 20, 2006

Singapore Swings...and India lingers

Andy and I had exactly 24 hours in Singapore. And no guidebook. Trying to cut corners where possible, we opted not to purchase a book (we'll save that money for Bali!) and instead wing it via websites and information counter maps.

I honestly didn't have a great desire to visit Singapore because I had an image of a tropical, modern Gotham and heard it has no soul, but lots of heat. But, thanks to Andy's surfing wizardry and masterful airline research, it was cheaper for us to fly to Singapore on Tiger Air, stay over for one night and then fly to Ho Chi Minh City than to fly directly via a major carrier from Bangkok so we added it to our itinerary. We even had some spending money available for our stopover thanks to the fare savings, which we'd need in this expensive-for-asia city.

I knew of the charming Raffles Hotel, whose famous Singapore Sling revolutionized cocktails, spicy food stalls and a modern airport complete with sleeping berths and duty free shopping to die for. But as it turns out, there is more to it, some things even a little charming, and we were both pleasantly suprised by our 24 hours in Singapore. Indeed there are modern towers of concrete and glass, but in between, there are petite colonial buildings with Palladian windows and wooden shutters painted in a riot of colors.~> read more

  Singapore also has a quaint harbor area where we rode a "bumboat", which is a primitive, wooden tug boat once used to ferry cargo from the big ships in the harbor up the river. Each boat has giant eyes painted on its bow for good luck per a Chinese myth, and the grizzled old man who steered our boat looked Malaysian but the person who sold us our tickets was Indian. Singapore is decidedly diverse, and it's been awhile since we've been somewhere that reminds us of the racial, cultural melting pot that is America.

We did all of our exploring on the SMRT, their subway and train system, and I was shocked to see it was cleaner than many of our hotel rooms on this trip! How do they do it? Andy realized how immediately and pointed to signs that stated fines for nearly everything from littering to eating inside the train, and then above ground, warnings for jaywalking and abusing emergency exits--any of the aforementioned could cost you between $500 and $2000! Unique and somewhat "Big Brother", but it works. We didn't see any trash any place ... until we got on the line headed for "Little India".

I'd read Little India was one of the most colorful quarters of Singapore to visit, so after a little mall hopping (Asia is the only place where Andy enjoys a mall more than I do because they're exploding with electronics and watches, two of his favorite things), we headed out for a bite of tikka masala. It was quite a sensory journey, however--more so than anywhere else we visited on the tiny island nation. On the subway, bits of trash crept up around us as we neared "Little India", along with the smell of hot oil and onions, plus colorful hordes of humans in moustaches and saris crowded us more than anywhere before. Andy and I looked at each other in surprise and silent communication..."Can you believe the change? It feels a LOT like India! Did you see that moustache? Look at that fabric!"

Once we stepped above ground, we had to exclaim to each other. "HOLY COW!?!" was all we could think. Around us, seeping into our senses and pores, was the most realistic, somehow-exported piece of India you could ever imagine! Gazing at the all-male crowds loafing about and talking, the deafening noise level of Hindu music and horns, the posters of elephant-trunked Ganesh and garish signs in gaudy colors, the complete lack of women and smells that ran the gamut from hot peppers to stale piss, we knew we could be nowhere else but India.

Though thousands of miles away and months ago in our travel memories, India's chaos and contradictions were suddenly around us again. It was copmletely surreal. Andy and I walked around in a daze, assaulted by the smell hot dosas and fresh turmeric while fending off eager men selling us gold and knock-off clothes. Yet we were completely absorbed in how authentic, how potent Little India felt to us. Somehow we were suddenly transported from Singapore to Jaipur or Mamallapuram, and every sense in our beings was dialed up to full volume. I realized in living, breathing color that in comparison to New Zealand, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore, there is nothing like India. India invades your senses and soul like a virus. But once you're cured and far away from it, some tiny part of you wants to be sick again just to remember what it's like to be confronted by everything humanity has to offer, from the best and brightest to the most squalid and horrific. In India, you must take the bad with the good, but for me it remains a complex, mysterious place that polarizes my senses, feelings and experiences like nowhere else in the world.

...Oh yes, the Singapore Sling was good -- perfectly pink color and way too sweet -- but Raffles' Long Bar where it was invented is right out of Indochine...all dark teak, swaying rattan fans and tunic-topped servers who float about noiselessly. The incongrous part, however, is that they serve bowls of peanuts and in this posh hotel, you munch away and toss the empty shells on the beautiful darkwood floor. And the street food was interesting -- I've now had bean curd pudding, sugar cane juice and an awesome fried coconut and pandan dumpling that would make doughnuts taste like a stale baguette. The airport shopping wasn't so great, however -- the Singaporeans don't like people to "browse" and try on creams and perfumes, and were all over me like the cheap suits I saw for sale in Little India.


Blogger jskalet said...

that is facinating about the little india, i'm glad you got a little taste of singapore, sort of an unexpected bonus. take care, be careful. love dad/john

11:13 AM  

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