Dear Readers – I’ll give you a breather in between my sweltering posts on Srilanka. Here is a short & welcome break, where I delve lovingly on Singapore with Sukumar Rajagopal. You might have seen his previous post in this series – If not, now’s a good time.
The Republic of Singapore is a clump of islands situated roughly 1° North of the Equator. It is extremely hot, humid & sticky even in December. Even 6 AM may prove too muggy for people unaccustomed to the tropics. Since we roamed around like wildebeest, we were sweating profusely & our shirts stuck to our backs & arms. Those who don’t want to stink like skunks should plan for a “costume change” in the evening: Not exactly preening for the cameras like Shivraj Patil, hope you catch my drift.
During the Monsoon season, the clouds may burst any minute & drench you to your skin in a trice. Hooded Raincoats & Umbrellas that can withstand strong winds are must-haves for travelers.
What is in my top-of-the-mind recall when I think of Singapore?
On the 1st day of our trip, we were nervously negotiating our way to the nearest MRT station – Outram Park. Since punishments for even minor offenses like jay-walking are severe in Singapore, we were very jittery. We were dazed, sleep deprived & the day was sultry. We were wondering if we were lost, wondering if we should ask for directions – a massive ego-crusher which Priya Raju seldom stoops to. At Sukumar’s insistence though, I reluctantly agreed to take a bus & ask the driver meekly for directions.
When we alighted the bus, we were greeted cheerfully by the bus driver – “Vaanga, Vaanga” (“Please Come In”) in chaste Tamil. We’ve been to other 1st world countries before. But never before have we encountered helpful Indians, that too Indians proudly flaunting their heritage. In fact, some of the Indians we met in the United States pretended to be so Americanized as to feign ignorance of their roots.
The bus fare was SGD $1 – and embarrassingly enough, we didn’t have the right change. We bumpkins had just got off the flight & the smallest denomination we had was an SGD $50 note. Red in our faces, we admitted such to the driver. To our utter amazement, the gentleman driver smiled, gave us 2 tickets & said – “Parava illai” (“Don’t Bother”). One of the perils of living in a big city in modern India is, we are so accustomed to rudeness & orneriness in people, that such gestures of kindness knock the wind off our sails. We stammered our thanks awkwardly, but forgot to get the name of the driver. We aren’t forgetting him in a hurry though. He actually set the tone for our perception of Singapore.
No trip to Singapore is complete without a visit to the Jurong Bird Park. Located in the Industrial zone of Jurong Hill, the Bird Park is the brain-child of the legendary Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee. Our 1st stop in the Bird Park was the “World of Darkness” – and we saw HEDWIG! In reality, its an owlery that houses nocturnal birds, including a few Snowy Owls like Hedwig. I was so taken by surprise, that I’m relieved I didn’t chant “Hed-wig, Hed-wig” like the unadulterated Harry Potter maniac I am.
My most favorite place in the Bird Park is the Lory Loft. Its a 3000 square feet fly-in aviary for Lorikeets & it is roughly 9 storeys tall. Lories are colorful, vivacious parrots from Australia & its environs. Visitors can feed them with a special nectar in a cup. All you need to do is, hold the cup aloft – and these bold, raucous, multi-hued birds alight on your arm, shoulder, head or back-pack & feed hungrily. Its a strangely satisfying experience. We were all giggling like kids – 10 year olds & 60 year olds alike. Of course, the Lories had more fun than us – they setup a riotous din with their screeches.
A Rainbow Lorikeet landed on my arm & seemed satisfied with my potential as a perch. Emboldened by this, I crooned to the bird – “Aren’t you a sweetie?”. The Lory, obviously in agreement, closed its eyes & said “Peep” softly. I pleaded gently, “May I touch you?”. Of course, we aren’t permitted to touch the animals, but I figured the Lory may not know the rule. Bad idea. That must have mightily offended the parrot, for it lifted its tail & did its business on my pants. Then said “SCREEEE!!” so loudly that I must have jumped 3 feet in the air.
What about the food in Singapore? I have a small confession to make. I don’t like Chinese Food. I don’t exactly hate it – I just don’t share the world’s obsession with that cuisine. I happen to think that Thai & Indonesian cuisines are wonderful specimens of the heights that Far Eastern food can rise to. I accuse Chinese food of a heinous crime. It makes everything taste like meat. And I mean, everything! Even their water tastes strange.
I & Sukumar believe in the apothegm, “In Rome, do as the Romans do”. We had read that Singaporeans frequent Kopi Tiams – local coffee houses cum food courts. So, we took ourselves to a famous Kopi Tiam in Bras Basah Road. Oh My. It was a vegetarian’s nightmare. Most of the stalls had Korean, Chinese or Japanese food – or so we gathered. The stench from the grilled meat was unbearable. Though a pure vegetarian, I’m no stranger to meat. Thus far, the only food that revolted me so much was the Tripe Soup that a fellow traveler had in Greece.
I spied some long-dead, skinned animal that resembled an elongated bat hanging from a meat hook. In God’s name, I know not what it is. My stomach did a somersault. Only long years of refinement stopped me from bolting out of the doors of the Food Court. After a few more false starts in other food courts in Singapore, we mostly visited restaurants – Irish, American, Italian, Mexican – in fact, any place where the kitchen was hidden from our view.
Ever heard a waiter from the Far East say “Fried Rice”? Chances are, a Thai waiter will serve you “Flied Lice”, amidst your protestations. I’ve read that Japanese lacks an “L”, so Alice of the Wonderland fame had to change her name to “Arisu”. Apparently, the Chinese share this dreaded disease. A funny incident happened on our way to the Asian Civilizations Museum. We flagged a cab & asked to be taken to the Armenian Street. Imagine our horror when the driver tried to shake us out in Almeida Street! I had to spell the name of the street for him. Then, he promptly said – “Oh, Almenian Street. Why didn’t you say so earlier?”.
Of course, this does not apply to the sophisticated, educated elite from the Far East in the corporate world. But, watch out for the swapping of “R” & “L” in Singapore. When they say “Haverock Road”, they mean “Havelock Road”.
The crown jewel of Singapore is of course its zoo. It is an open zoo, where most of the animals are free to move around. It isn’t uncommon to see that the zebras have moved in with the elephants for the day. Or that the Meerkats have sublet their space to a Crowned Crane. Animal lovers who hate to see forlorn looking beasts in oppressive cages will rejoice in this zoo. Truth be told, I was scared out of my wits to see even lions & tigers without cages: only a puny watery moat separated these predators from the visitors. I was relieved to see that leopards & jaguars – that can jump across piddly little moats without disarranging their fur – kept in enclosures.
Our most unforgettable experience was with the ring-tailed lemurs in the “Fragile Forest” section. But to know about that, you should read my next post.
Its a pity that Singapore is thought of purely as a huge shopping mall. There’s more to the country than that. I plan to write a couple more posts on Singapore’s plenitude of charms, before moving on to my beloved Srilanka, the land of my dreams.