I’m swigging on a can of Singaporean beer, gazing out the window of our seventh floor ‘hotel’ room at the odd mix of old and new (buildings), trying to get a sense of what it must have been like ‘then’, before all this modern development. Singapore long had a reputation as a den of vice and iniquity. A steaming, tropical port city with a fascinating, colourful and eventful recent history. A major international shipping port catering to any sailors whim: the days when ships could be alongside for three or four weeks, and daily, hundreds, sometimes thousands of sailors would be looking for ways to spend their money. It is not easy to imagine, only the legend remains. Bulldozers sweep clean, like a new broom. It is 90% new, although it looks as if they have belatedly discovered the importance of architectural heritage. It has also become one very rich city, ‘the powerhouse of Asia’. Containerised shipping has minimised both the crew complement and the time alongside the wharves now, and the government has cleverly targeted tourists as the new big spender. However, this Island (for that is what Singapore is) with its multitude of neat, newly painted high rise apartment blocks, shiny sky scrapers, wide and clean tree lined streets, trim parks, organised tidy people is, quite honestly, after India, stunningly boring!
As we queued in the stainless steel bus queuing pens at a bus station, Rachel bleated like a sheep! I laughed as I joined her vision of the sheep pens and yards we have experienced. And yes, that’s what it is like here. Very controlled. It is also reminiscent of Perth in its newness and cleanliness. Anyway, after India with its life and people spilling out onto the untidy streets, Singapore is frightfully dull. Neat, organised, yet dull. It wasn’t always thus, I know.
Fortunately, we discovered Chinatown. A rather vast, colourful and very old suburb, where life for the residents goes on at its ageless pace – to the beat of a different drum so to speak. The mysterious herbal medicinal shops, the tea shops which are equally as confounding, the overflowing gold shops and so it goes on. Outside his premises, a restaurateur empties two large plastic bags of the biggest, fattest frogs I have ever seen into a holding tank on the footpath. Obviously a popular dish. This is more to our liking.
Early on, we had discovered the ‘food hawker’ centres. These proliferate and are similar to (in concept only) the ‘International’ food halls in Australia. There were street hawkers, but in its cleaning up of Singapore, the government of Lee Kuan Yew removed them off the streets.
We ate, one afternoon, in the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre in Chinatown. Towards evening, having eaten our way through as many oriental delights from as many stalls as we were able, we were joined by Freddy, a second generation Singaporean Chinese. He and I shared a few beers while the three of us queried each other about our respective lives. Thus we gained insight into Singapore – sacrificing my liver in the interests of insight and conviviality! Later in the evening, with most of the stalls closing up, while Rachel was holding him in conversation and I was beginning to loose the plot, I amused myself by trying to count the incredibly numerous and blatantly casual, large rats feeding or scurrying about the floor of this cavernous ‘food hall’. To me the rats are a good sign. A sign that Singapore hasn’t become too puritanical. Rats are natures scavengers and cleaners. We’ve witnessed their cousins in many an un-salubrious eatery on our travels (and mice playing peek-a-boo out of ventilation pipes in the London Underground).
As good tourists (for what else can a traveller be in Singapore), we visited the Jurong Bird Park, and I recommend it to anyone visiting the Island. It is very ordered, of course, but gives one the opportunity to see many rare and very colourful species of tropical birds relatively close up, and in some cases, face to face. Where the birds are in enclosures, these are very generous spaces. I have forgotten to mention the climate here in March. It is steamy! It rains once or twice every day – to no great cooling effect.
We now have mixed feelings about terminating our journey, but our travel budget dictates. It has been fascinating, frustrating, entertaining, enriching, and I do declare – a delight!
MIXED FEELINGS EXPOUNDED
Day 1: Arrive Perth. Customs impound our very large suitcase of shirts from Goa (a small business venture) awaiting documented valuation for duty. Bugger! It is 40ºC out at the airport. We have never struck it so flat out hot anywhere on our travels!
Day 2: Temperature 46ºC. Most unpleasant. Nerves fraying.
Day 3: Rachel and I (usually it is only me) struck down with some exotic, flu-like virus, probably caught on the Singapore to Perth flight. (There was a man ambling around the aircraft with a filter mask on. I should have known. But what can you do?)
Days 4, 5 and 6: Well, you’ve all had one of those viruses: joints painful, headaches, fever, cold shivers, tingly sensitive scalp, congested lungs, sore throat, sore stomach from coughing! The body says “Lie down. Stay down.”
So that, in a nutshell, is our return ‘home’ after seven months travelling. No brass bands or fanfares. You could say it’s been a melt down. We are hoping that Rachel’s parents don’t get infected, as they are putting us up. Now how, I wonder, would ‘putting us up’ translate into Spanish? Interesting ……
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009