May 12th, 2004
Subject: Small country, small journal entry.
Leaving Manila was tough. Not just emotionally because we had fallen in love with the country and the people for 3 months, but it was physically tough. First off, Alan and Zsa Zsa and their friend Colin had come to Manila on the last night we would be there, so we really had to go out and celebrate with them on the one day that we all had together. So we went out, and ended up staying out all night and not sleeping. Planning on leaving at noon to catch our 3pm flight and sleeping in Singapore.
Well, the first hitch we had at the airport was the "onward ticket required" thingy. See, there are quite a few countries that want to make sure that you are not trying to flee into their country, so they will force you to show proof of onward travel in the form of a roundtrip ticket, or another type of ticket leaving the country. Hogwash! I'm a backbacker, I do things spur of the moment, and have no idea where I will be going from one day to the next. How can you expect me to have an onward ticket when I dont know where I am going? So, I did what anyone in my position would do. I made fake tickets for me and Dave on the ferry to Indonesia. I just went to the ferry companies web site and booked tickets and printed out the bookings without paying for them. Well, the lady at the check-in counter at the Manila airport wasnt buying it. I got a little nervous when she said it wasnt good enough, but decided to stick to my guns and insist that it was. "Look, this is my booking! With my name on it! And a credit card receipt!". She took it to her manager, and came back and said it was fine. Nice!
So we check in, go to our gate, only to find that the flight is delayed 2 hours. The delayed time was even printed on the ticket. Which means the lady at the coutner could have said something and we could have stayed in the nice area outside the waiting area, but instead we had to sit in the boarding area for nearly 3 hours. Well, that is until they told us the flight was cancelled. Thats right, flight is rescheduled for 5am tomorrow.
So we all load up on a bus for the airline to take us to a hotel. We figured it might be a cheap place, but in fact it was a real nice 3-4 star hotel. It had 2 pools, a jacuzzi (which I made immediate use of) a nice little fridge stocked with beers (which Dave and I made use of, courtesy of Philippine Air) cable TV and a huge complementary buffet downstairs. Offering buffet dinners of gourmet cooked food to backpackers is always a dangerous thing. We both ate way past the limits of being full. No rice please, I'll have more of the salmon and caviar.
Only downside was that we needed to wake up at 2am to get on the bus to go back to the airport. In our favor, we probably never would have gotten to sleep unless we hadnt stayed up all night the night before.
We arrived in Singapore a little aprehensive. First off, we had the forged onward tickets. If the lady from PhilippineAir was strict, how might the Singapore customs officials be? I mean this is the country that gave an American a caning 10 years ago, remember? Add to that, in the travel agency where we bought the ticket, 2 warnings came up in the computer. One about the onward ticket, the other said "Entry may be refused to "hippy" types." We had heard from other people that persons with long hair have been turned away from Singapore in the past. Daves hair is quite long, and being in dreads could be considered a little "hippyish". So, he bought a nice shirt with a collar to dress himself up and we hoped for the best.
With all those things against us, we were a bit nervous. But there was really no need to be. We got through customs just fine without a single question about onward tickets. No fuss about the hair. All was well and fine.
We got out and headed to the city center on the subway. Most places I visit are nothing like I picture them to be. Oddly enough, Singapore is exactly as I pictured it to be. A very clean and orderly place with a lot of new buildings, a lot of stainless steel and floors and sidewalks you could eat off of. It was just like i imagined.
We were in the city center in 30 minutes. In Singapore, you are never more than an hour from anywhere. The name of the city is Singapore, but its also the name of the country. Its basically a small island/city/country. And you can go from one side to the other in one hour.
We found a hotel, checked in and passed out for the day. Singapore is significantly hotter than it is in the Philippines. As soon as we walk out of our room (which has A/C) we begin to sweat. Clothes feel sweaty before we even put them on. And throughout the day and night, we just sweat. I went shirt shopping in the market the other day and the lady didnt want me to try the shirt on because I was dripping with sweat. Yeah, its hot.
Our first night, we just wanted to head out around town and see some of the sights. Singapore is very expensive, and we knew that we wouldnt be able to go out every night. Dave had met Singaporean friends in both Thailand and Bali, so we planned to go out with them, so we decided that we'd just take a walk our first night.
This city is really an amazing thing to find in the center of South East Asia. For the most part, SE Asia is made up of poorer countries, where things are cheap. And right in the middle is this tiny country with more wealth than all the neighboring countries combined. We walked along the waterfront and marvelled at all the brand new skyscrapers and the amazing skyline. We stopped to get a drink at a tour-boat stand and ended up talking to the local guy that was working there. We asked him about the rumours we had heard about the high fines for littering. He confirmed that it is in fact a $1000 fine for littering. In some cases, they will make you wear a reflective vest and clean the streets for 2 hours on Sunday morning while the newspapers come out to take photos of you. Right on. He said there is a little joke in Singapore that it really is a fine country. You get a fine for littering, a fine for spitting, a fine for jaywalking, a fine for chewing gum.
Chewing gum? Yes, thats right. Its illegal to sell, own, chew or distribute gum in the country of Singapore. The government got sick of people spitting it on their pristine sidewalks and therefore made it illegal. And Dave smuggled 4 packs in to the country. Not just sumggled, but smuggled with the intent to distribute. :) Actually, we didnt realize it was illegal to have it. We just thought it wasnt sold here.
I think the most amazing thing about this whole city though, is its multi-culturalness. There really is no "native Singaporean". Sure, there are a lot whos nationality is Singaporean, but the country only gained its independence in 1954, so all the people are from all over the world. China, Malaysia, India, Middle East, Europe and the US, and the rest of Asia. But the truly amazing and beautiful part is the complete intergration of everyone. In other major metropolitan cities, you find people of their own nationality seem to live and congregate in the same areas as each other. Not because they are racist, but just because it seems they prefer to be with their own race. But here in Singapore, everyone seems to be harmoniously mixed in with everyone else. We've even pointed that out to a few local people that we've met here, and they sort of shrug it off with a indication of "yeah, of course, thats just the way its done". But really, you look on the subway, and you will see so many different nationalities, and so many of them still wear their traditional clothing. Its just amazing.
Because of this, the main language spoken is English. While this is a nice benefit to the English-speaking backpacker, it also doesnt allow us to learn the native language. I like to at least learn basic words such as "Thank you" in the local language so that you can thank the person at the store or restaurant. Here, even if you learned all the languages, it'd be too hard to determine what nationality the person belonged to, and then at that, all the locals just speak to each other in English at restaurants and shops.
Our next night we met up with Daves friend Nina and her friends. These people were the ulitmate clubbers of Singapore. Really awesome people who knew all the best clubs and all the best places to go. They took us out down to an area called Arab street where there were a whole bunch of little restaurants which served typical indian cusine along with hookahs with flavored tabacco. I had tried one of these Hookahs when I was in Panama and quite enjoyed it. So our group ordered up one and smoked it and drank tea before heading out to the club. It was such an awesome way to warm up to going out to the clubs.
We checked out a couple clubs but eventually headed to Zouk, which is rumoured to be the #1 club in all of Asia and the 6th best club in the world. Not really sure if that was fact or hearsay, but it was definitaley a really nice club. The music that night wasnt the best, but it was a far cry better than anything we had heard in the Philippines for the past 3 months. In fact, I danced to it for 3 hours straight and just loved hearing good music that you could dance to, especially if it wasnt the Black Eyed Peas.
After some exercise in the park the next morning, Dave and I headed off to find "the marina" and see if there might be any boats looking for crew leaving Singapore. We found where the marina was, took a train to the nearest stop and got a cab to take us the rest of the way. Well, the marina turned out to be a place that rented little paddleboats and kiddie sailboats. Oops, misunderstanding. We then got a cab to the real marina, which had all of 10 tiny little boats in it. We couldnt believe how hard it was to find "the marina". We figured a main port like Singapore would have one big marina. Well, not so. It turns out that there are about 5 different marinas spread out over the city, on each corner of the island. We decided to call our search quits for the day.
Our plan was to head out to the clubs that night, but we wanted to start the night off at Arab street again with some tea and a hookah. It was such a chilled out way to start the night. We got there and found a guy with a tarambuka drum just like the one Dave is traveling with, playing along to the music and a bellydancer dancing in the street. We grabbed a table and joined them. Slowly, people started moving tables together in the street, and a small party sort of sprang up. Dave and Mohammed, the owner of the drum, took turns playing the drum, and the group at the large table ordered up a full lamb, which must have weighed 25 pounds at least. The whole atmosphere was so cool, we ended up staying all night. The people at the large table offered us to join in their feast of lamb, which we did gladly. One of the guys was the owner of the bar. At one point, I looked around and realized that I couldnt see two people that looked of the same ethnic background here. About 20 people, each from a completely different part of the world. I am really just so moved by this - I think Singapore should be a model of how easy the whole world really could get along.
The next day I went walking in the shopping district, and walked by the temples and churches. Again, I noticed it was odd but cool that there was a Hindu Temple right next door to a Buddist Temple, and around the corner there was a catholic church. And sadly again I noticed it was not odd and not cool to try to buy shoes in Asia when you have massive feet.
Walking around, you notice a lot of the fair-skinned Asian people carrying parasols (aka umbrellas for the sun). In many parts of Asia, it is way more fashionable to be much whiter. In fact, skin-whitening lotions are all the rage. The explanation is a bit strange, but I guess it makes sense. In Asia, the people working the rice fields in days of old were much darker from being in the sun all day. If you had the luxury and status of not having to work in the fields, then you were going to be paler. So, its now the fashion. I guess just as those who have the luxury of working less in the western world will be out tanning themselves.
Which was our plan - we decided to spend the afternoon at the beach. I mean, where else can you be in a city and an hour later be at a beach. Ok, I guess I could name a few other places, but all the same we wanted to check it out. The beach is on Sentosa island, which has a bit of a Disneyland feel to it. You arrive at the island by cable car, which really does have a fantastic view of the whole city. Once you get to the beach, all the busses and monorails on the island are free. Its included in the cable car ride I guess. We made it to the beach, and again, it had that Disnseyland feel to it. Probably because it was a man-made beach. Although, to my recollection, the beaches at Disneyland dont have 30+ shipping tankers out back. The people who built the beach have built these cool little islands just off the shore to sort of hide these behemoths just off the shore, but its like putting a small box in front of an elephant. However the islands do make neat platforms to do some cliff jumping from.
I've got to learn to stop doing that. I have hurt myself 4 of the last 4 times I have gone cliff jumping. In Gigantes Island I hurt my inner ear because I jumped from too high and the pressure was too much too fast. Then I cut my toe in Coron and nearly needed to have it amputated. Ok, I'm exaggerating, but it was bad, ask Dave. Then I jumped off the deck at Starfish island and hit bottom. Ok, this one was more my own stupidity. I could see it was about 3 feet deep, but wanted to prove that with the proper angle, a dive could be made. And I did it twice, but the 3rd time proved a little less lucky. Well, this time was a bit worse. There were other people jumping from this rock, so I figured it to be safe. I went in once and all was ok. I went in a second time as the tide was surging out. It couldnt have been more than 5-6 feet deep and I went in straight and hit bottom hard. I mangled my fingers, elbows and stomach. Luckily my face escaped damage and regions just below the stomach also escaped, but only by an inch, according to the huge scratches on my stomach. Gotta stop jumping.
That night we headed out to meet up with Anba and Kannan, the two friends of Dave that he met in Bali. We went to dinner at a cool chinese resturant with Anba and then all headed out to an Irish Pub down on Orchard Road (the more touristy area) to meet up with Kannan and catch up on what had been happening in the past 4 months. 2 nicer guys could not be found. Often when you're traveling, offers are made to come visit someone in their home country, but sadly, most people never follow through with those. It was really nice that Dave got to meet up with these guys again, and the hospitality they extended us was beyond measure. They insisted that we were invited to lunch at Kannans wifes' families' house the next afternoon, which we gladly accepted.
We arrived at their house the next day and was greeted by Kannan who took the time to point out all the small things you'd never notice about everyday life in Singapore if you were just touring around on your own. Like most families in Singapore, because the country is so small, they live in a high-rise apartment.
His mother in-law had cooked up an incredible meal of lamb, chicken, rice, and vegatables. Forks not icluded. Yes, thats right, in typical indian fashion, everything is eaten with the hands. I must say, this was a bit difficult for me to get used to. Every kid in America grows up with their mother saying "Dont eat with your hands!" the moment you try to pick something off your plate with your fingers. Yet here we were, all eating with our hands. Way cool. The only rule is that you shouldnt get any on your palms. On the fingers up to the knuckles is ok, but just not the palms. And only use the right hand. It was an amazingly delicious meal, and we were once more full to the brim.
So that takes us to about right now. I had dinner with some people I had met at the Irish Pub the other night, and now I'm in the internet cafe before turning in a bit early. The plans may be to head to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia tomorrow, or perhaps just stay here a few more days. It really is an amazing city, but its just a little too expensive to spend too much time here.
Singapore also has its share of interesting signs.
Hope all is well with you,