The plan: not to plan in Singapore
If you have nothing to do, think about where your friends and colleagues live or are from. You will be surprised at how easily this exercise can translate into an extraordinary travel itinerary. I did this and then found myself in Singapore.
One of the best things about traveling far from home is finding yourself far from home but in a friend’s home. Unbelievably, I have friends in Singapore. There is something to be said for so-called couch surfing as a “29 year-old plus” (:)). Although it is not really couch surfing, as I have had my own bed and bathroom. I don’t have to find a spot in strangers’ homes because at this point in my life, my friends and family are spread out across the world. I planned an extended holiday for only three months, and yet, I missed opportunities to meet with friends and family in Thailand, Ulaan Baatar, Sydney, Lady Elliot Island, Myanmar, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. You do not have to think about where to go, just where you can not, when you have those kinds of options.
I have resisted the temptation to fill my 14 days in Singapore with not only Singapore but trips to other countries nearby. I could not avoid thinking about traveling to places such as Cambodia or Vietnam or Hong Kong especially when you see how easy it is to travel into and out of Changi Airport, Singapore. Not even an annoying 30 minutes tops for logging in to the Internet. I just got to log in. It is so comfortable in this airport that bodies are lying everywhere at night. Or it is the nature of the travelers that go through Singapore-arriving in the middle of the night from someplace you or I never heard of for a short layover to fly to somewhere else we have never heard of.
So I decided to stay put and to explore as much of Singapore as I could, by public transportation and by foot. Singapore is a walking city…in theory. If you look at a map of the city center, it really is not that big. If you choose the right streets you can end up where you want to be in about 30 to 40 minutes. The problem with walking is that while you can easily see where you want to go when you are standing at an intersection, you can not always get there in a straightforward manner. Often you are not allowed to cross just to the other side, either because you are not allowed to cross there (for no obvious reason) or usually, because of construction.
I had moments of desperation at intersections, assessing my options that would get me the 15 meters to the other side. If you add to that some heat and humidity, and occasionally hunger, suddenly your simple goal to find dim sum seems unattainable. There are safe options for crossing, which at first are not so obvious because you have already passed them by the time you reach the intersection you would like to traverse. Underpasses are the main option and less often pedestrian bridges. The underpasses are not entirely undesirable places to voluntarily enter into, even though you know it might be 15 minutes before you exit, because there is air-conditioning.
It is easier with the metro system (MRT) to plan how to reach different areas of the city center. The public transportation, namely the metro system, is superb and within minutes you can land where you want to be, and without sweat. The only confusing part is when you get off because many MRT stations dump you directly into a shopping mall. These shopping malls must have been designed with some kind of psychological experiment in mind. They are mazes of shops and eateries that either repeat themselves or seem to because you just go around and around. I have more than once run to the customer service desk in a panic asking how do I get out of here???? There are signs, but they look like something you would see on a highway, only a road sign would never have so many options. Sometimes I was unable to find the way out because I was a couple of levels below street level. There is a whole life underground in Singapore it seems. It is hard to believe it, but there are shops under the shops.
Shopping centers come in two varieties, interestingly. One is sort of the set-up I am familiar with coming from the States. The other is like a series of small stalls. The shops in this second kind of mall come accompanied with a special address-like 05-24, which might be shop number 24 on the fifth floor. It looks easy enough until you try to find the 24 part because there is no directory or map that might tell you, “you are here” with a big red dot. Amazing stuff from all over Asia can be found in these shopping malls if you choose to look at the experience as a form of entertainment. They are not however places that you just pop into to find something quickly, and you may need food and water with you.
I can not really describe everything you might see in shops there. It is hard to imagine exactly what some of these things are used for, but if you can think of it, you can find it, especially dried forms of formerly living things. It was a reminder of things I might find in Norway but to eat.
There is a practical aspect to walking in Singapore. If you do walk and one of your goals is to find a specific place to eat, then you do not have to worry about the number of calories in the meal once you arrive there. At the same time, it took me a couple of days before I reached my goal of dim sum because it took me longer than expected by foot because of the above mentioned detours. I was always late for dim sum, which on weekdays usually happens in between 11 and 14:30.
Because you can taste many small plates at various eateries, eating out in Singapore is sometimes a minimum of a two-person activity. I love dim sum, but I find myself overeating it every time because I want to taste one of everything. Perhaps it is at a minimum a three-person activity because usually you find three of something or some multiple of three of something because they get cut in half. I don’t know why they come in threes. I missed my sister’s Chinese in-laws desperately on a Singapore dim sum excursion because with them I can try a variety of dim sum that I would never even think to try and like it.
Yum Cha was my restaurant destination of choice in the heart of Chinatown. You reach the restaurant in a hotel through a series of escalators (or staircases, can not remember), so I know that I was not on street level but I am actually not sure whether I was on the second or third floor of a hotel. I read that Yum Cha is actually another name for dim sum, which means to touch the heart. You could interpret this to mean that the chef wants to woo the recipient, but the dim sum chef supposedly wants to elicit some kind of emotion from the eater with the dim sum. I tested my emotional capacity with my favorite dim sum, the mango prawn wraps-prawns wrapped in tofu with a slice of mango and deep-fried. I wanted to shout how good they were, and at the same time, I was suddenly relaxed and in heaven because yum, they definitely were. You can not get bored in Singapore just because there are so many food adventures to have.
The options for locales for the food is just as much fun to investigate as well as which kind of food to eat. I am of the opinion that Asian dishes in particular are one kind of food that is not necessarily better when you dress it up in a fancy restaurant. In Singapore, you can find Hawkers’ stalls, which from an appearance standpoint are a slight upgrade from outright street food. Here, you can try just about any type of food for about a third the price of a restaurant. The ambiance is certainly different, but the quality of the ingredients, especially seafood, is not so different from a bona fide restaurant. My one experience with an upscale restaurant, in fact, was not that great for several reasons, including the fact that my food was not even warm. It is worth trying Hawkers’ stalls because the food does taste good and it is warm, but you have to pretend not to think about where and how well the dishes might get washed.
When you walk around Singapore, you see people from many different countries and hear many different languages. Singapore is like all of the people of Southeast Asia and the Western world shaken up all together during the day. The country has a population of about 5 million people, which interestingly is about the same as that of Norway but considerably less land. People look differently, they speak differently, and they have different religious beliefs. I don’t know where they all go home to, but when you look at this mix during the day as a tourist, it seems to be a peaceful nation. Everyone goes about their business, just earning money, which is apparently what the country is all about.
At least three languages are on most signs: English, Chinese, and Malay. One of the advantages of traveling to Singapore is again that the first language of is English. English as the first language is also a disadvantage. It is cheap entertainment for me to learn a few words of the local language when English is not the first language. However, Malay is basically Bahasa Indonesia, and so I could still challenge myself with some of the words that show up on signs around the city center. Wanita, which is the word for woman in Indonesian and Malay also, is pretty easy for me to remember because Juanita is my name in Spanish. It is pronounced the same, and it makes me wonder exactly how the same word could emerge in two such different languages.
English, though, is Singaporean English. Some nuances exist that I presume are taken from an Asian influence on the language. Apparently to call someone “uncle” who is not related to you, and older, is a term of respect. Although I was not happy making the transition from miss to ma’am or madam, I am not sure if I would like to be called auntie except in the context of being an aunt to someone.
Because the preponderance of people is of various Asian nations, the holiday season is not exactly the same as for the Western world. I walked around for days thinking that what I thought were poor renditions of Santa’s reindeer and leftover decorations from the Christmas holiday were really horses for the year of the Horse for Chinese New Year. According to my friends, Chinese New Year is the biggest event all year in Singapore. The fact that it was only early January and some decorations were already up around the city, indicated to me that Singapore prepares at least a month for the event.
In a huge contrast to the modern feel of Singapore, one “festival” that I did manage to observe was the Thiapusam procession, a once a year festival linked to the full moon in January. It is still unclear to me the origins of this Hindu festival, but what you see is a procession of men carrying enormous, sometimes flickering contraptions (kavadi) on their shoulders and heads which are attached to their bodies with needles. Some use safety pins… Which they use may be based on wealth. The needles are inserted just under the skin, and if done properly, no bleeding occurs. One big plus. The men are followed by friends and family for support, but since some of the friends and family were just drinking beer, I am not sure how to interpret their support. The procession is 5km from one temple to another, which seems excrutiating to me. In 1.5 hours, I only saw one man who was displaying pain.
I could not believe what I was seeing and had to ask some Indian women behind me, “Why would they do this?” They told me that it is to get something that they want, like a baby, or retribution for something they have failed at. Perhaps they have had an affair, they told me. It is difficult to understand some of these customs as a Westerner, but when you see this, you can perhaps understand how in some cultures, they remain focused on the ultimate goal rather than what they have to endure to get there.
Although Singapore is typical in its urban metropolis characteristics, big buildings, traffic, and people, like all dynamic cities there are some terrific opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. It is an island. Manhattan is an island too, but Singapore is tropical, i.e flip-flops (or slippers) are allowed everywhere. And there are islands to the island, such as Sentosa Island as well as some islands that belong to Indonesia or Malaysia. All are easy to reach. The beaches on Sentosa are manmade, the natural beaches lost to urbanization, but the water is warm and the area is pleasantly different from the city. If you go, you can actually reach the southern most point of the Asian continent.
I did try to include some diving, as part of the non-urban experience in Singapore, but some Singaporean divers in Indonesia told me that unless I had a penchant for breathing compressed air, it was not worth the money. Diving is always a way for me to socialize so it would not have mattered to me (I learned to dive in a stone quarry after all), so I asked when I arrived there anyway. Even though Singapore itself is not a world class dive destination, it is a gateway for travel to dive Southeast Asia, so there is a concentration of divers, shops, and underwater photography enthusiasts around. I was still advised not to dive Singapore or even a small Indonesian island nearby, but I made an interesting dive connection with whom I discussed future dive dreams.
It was kind of interesting to be “lazy” and plan to not plan anything in Singapore. I forced myself to find color in the city (easy to find in fabrics on Arab Street and in a Gaudi-like fountain on Sentosa Island) and some artistic ways to look at the skyscrapers. I discovered a common theme in the buildings and nature when I looked closely at my photos. Many buildings sort of reflect the color of the sea and sky most days in Singapore, which seemed hazy most of the time.
The big surprise of this segment of my “swimabout” was that because it was my plan to not plan anything-I was just there-I felt as if I became a part of my friends’ lives again rather than using their home as a guest hotel.
©2014 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiink.com
travel tip: come up with a travel itinerary based on where your friends and colleagues live! try it and see where the most exotic place is that you can travel to.