Stories from Singapore

Singapore has been an incredible experience. On my fifth day in, I can say that there have been some low points and many high points. Take for example my few moments in the country. I was so excited I let out blips of cheers and bursts of laughter, delighting in the merlions and the humidity and the word “Singapore” everywhere. So much of my life had been spent dreaming of going to Singapore to be with a very special someone, and even though it’s been seven years, I couldn’t help but feel excited to be back in the country I had dreamed of for so long. Things after that went pretty steeply downhill though. My first night here was pretty hard- I hadn’t slept the night previous because I was having too much fun on the plane, and I felt so exhausted and beat down. Against all my hopes, the weather was not much improved from the bitter and cloudy days of London, for it was raining when I arrived. I once again donned my raincoat and laid plastic bags within my suitcase to prevent it from being drenched, and forged out into the rain to find the hotel. Although I got lost, I did eventually manage to find it, and I checked into the deceptively tiny room with relief. (By tiny, I mean that as I walked through the door I suddenly hit the bathroom wall and nearly stumbled over the very sizeable bed.) I managed to Skype with Bethwyn for a short while, but I was so very tired, and hungry, and I was determined to find an umbrella to prevent the difficulty I had in getting to the hotel in relative dryness.

Our hotel is located in Chinatown, where the majority of residents are Chinese and have little knowledge of English. I therefore found it extremely challenging to ask if they had any umbrellas. My rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin served me very little, and as I wandered from shop to shop, street to street, my hopes began to wilt under the constant rebuff of repeated unsuccess. Eventually I gave up and decided I’d just buy dinner, but even that was not so easy. The restaurants, hawkers, food courts and kitchens were all Chinese, and of the hundreds of dishes I had seen so far, I had found only one or two to be vegetarian, and then, only sliced cucumbers or bowled bean sprouts. In my exhausted desperation, I stumbled into a food court, found a “noodle with bean sauce and tofu” dish and bought it. The man made the noodles from scratch, pounding and stretching the dough with exquisite ease. Alas, when it was served, the “bean” sauce turned out to be “beef” sauce. With tremendous sadness at this new setback, I ate around the beef as best I could, but nevertheless swallowed much and felt quite sickened by it.

I returned to the hotel (after managing to discover a small umbrella stand inside a shopping complex), somewhat miserable and tried well by the day’s long challenges. My intention was to sleep early, from 7pm-4am, whence I would catch a taxi to the airport to meet Bethwyn. Alas, I slept quite fitfully until I woke up and checked the time. “8:30? It cannot be… Have I slept so long I missed the flight? Is that the correct date?” Nope, it wasn’t. It was still the 31st, and I’d only slept for an hour. I spent the next six hours partially asleep but mostly awake, until at 2am I just sat up, not willing to suffer insomnia any longer.

The taxi arrived a little early, and as we sped merrily to the airport down the midst of two lanes, the driver cheerfully remarked on all the people who were desperately trying to catch a ride home after their New Year shenanigans. “Look at this poor woman! She think she can catch the taxi lah, but all the people at the Marina Bay Sans no can find the taxi! She got no hope lor,  I tell you true! She better wait til six o clock, catch the train one!” he crowed. I had a really great ride with him, grateful that I had booked ahead rather than wandered the streets desperately.

Alas, another setback befell me. I had accidentally left Beth’s flight information at the hotel in my haste to get out the door. But I made an educated guess and waited around at the arrivals. To my dispirit,  my guess was wrong, and though Beth arrived in the same terminal, she was at a different exit. Fortunately I found my way to her, and happily reunited, we had breakfast at a Chinese cafe. Having not slept all night, Bethwyn left the decision-making to me. But alas (a word that seems too-well used today), once again my resilience was tested. The tofu rice I ordered was covered in the same beef sauce of the day prior, and I could find no vegetarian meal for Beth so she had to start the day with a chicken soup. It was refreshing to eat hot food, but far from ideal. We returned to the hotel by taxi and slept eagerly until 2pm. Sadly, this would become the start of our warped sleeping patterns of late nights and later starts.

After sleeping for a few consecutive hours, I felt so much better. My weary spirit had finally gotten some rest, and so with renewed vigour, we set out to explore Chinatown. We visited the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple (impressive, but there was no sign of the tooth), bought chestnuts from the pasar malam, and generally wandered around the numerous shopping complexes nearby. In truth, that’s how we spent the next few days. Every couple of metres there seems to be a new shopping complex, and it’s not at all difficult to get distracted by many of them and sucked in for a few hours.

We got the rare pleasure of seeing Ivy, my once-dear girlfriend (whom I saw but twice during our long-distance relationship of one and a half years). She took us to a locally renowned food court and taught us the art of ordering yong tau foo,  and the pleasures of drinking sugarcane. She suggested some further places to visit, and arranged a future meeting for jogging and perhaps a little Muay Thai. Obviously I can’t wait.

More-or-less every day, Beth and I would head out to find a new book store which she had read about (and the many distracting areas surrounding them). Ivy had made some excellent recommendations for where to look, and we wandered the streets with reasonable competence as we found our way to Books Actually, Littered with Books and Kinokuniya. I very nearly bought a dictionary guide of “Singlish”, the rich Singaporean version of English made from a half dozen different languages, and briefly contemplated a new career in translating English books for a Singaporean audience.

One of the numerous places we went shopping was the legendary Orchard Road, which was like having Carousel, the Galleria, Karrniyup shopping centre, Gateways Midland and Cockburn, Hay Street and Murray Street Mall all jammed next to each other on one road. We bought chocolate fudge (such a bad vegan XD), bags, shoes, a watch, a very comfy poncho,  and plenty of delicious food (kueh!!!).

Apart from the very generous opportunities to go shopping, Beth and I also visited the Night Safari. We had bought a “zoo-hopper” pass, allowing us to visit the Singapore Zoo as well, but alas, our ticket to the Zoo went unused as we arrived too late to enter. The Night Safari seemed to make up for it though. After an overpriced but delicious dinner, we caught a performance with Malayan firebreathers, who created impressive torrents of flames and skillfully shot darts. They had such a great time, dancing and laughing and blowing fire that it was hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm. Their performance was followed by a thoroughly hilarious Creatures of the Night Show where we got to meet racoons, otters, a timberwolf, a dingo and various other nocturnal creatures. It was the host who really completed the experience though, cracking well-polished jokes and putting on an amazing stageshow. The tram ride through the seven-climate exhibits was humbling and pleasurable, bringing us within arms-reach of buffalo, deer, flamingoes, waving elephants and sleeping lions. By the time we had finished, it was so late that the trains couldn’t take us all the way home so we ended up catching a taxi.

There is but one more adventure I’d like to regale you with. After a thoroughly relaxing half-body massage (I felt so loose and woozy  afterwards!), I grabbed my overly full bag of laundry and set out to find a laundromat which I had located on googlemaps. Unfortunately I got turned around quite thoroughly, and ended up wandering down random streets in the hopes of seeing something indicative of the right path. On just such a street, I passed an unremarkable acupuncturist clinic whose lights were still on. As I walked past, I glanced inside and saw an old man lean forwards and palm strike the shoulder of another man (who was not quite as old, but certainly wasn’t young) whose back was to me. The shoulder is not a particularly obvious target, and the palm is not a particularly dangerous weapon, so I wondered if they were two old men, joking around and copying kung fu movies. Nevertheless I backtracked after I had passed the store and paused a moment to watch as this old man struck again.

This time the younger man evaded the blow and stepped in to countering-range. Having missed his strike, the elder man converted his palm strike into a sweeping throw by turning the palm up and unbalancing his friend. He did this simple technique with such grace, fluidity and a kind of calm and casualness that awed me. He said some words in Mandarin, of which “gong fu” was unmistakably one of them. It was then that they noticed me then and called out to me in Mandarin. I answered meekly that I didn’t understand and nodded politely, hastily walking away. How I wish I had said “Zhiao ahn! Gong fu ma? Wo shi gong fu. Nah,  tai qi, shaolin,  baguazhang, xingyi.” Not that my Chinese is good enough to communicate even simple words. But as I walked away embarrassed, I felt that maybe, just maybe if I had stuck around and tried to overcome the language barrier, I might have learned something great from that old man.

As it happened, my vague wandering brought me back to that acupuncture shop. The two gentlemen were still practicing, but this time they paid me no mind. I watched as the elder deflected a high punch and fluidly countered with a strike to the carotid. He spoke in Mandarin and his friend punched again with the other hand. The elder moved to the same side and deflected the same way, but instead of striking to the carotid, he struck to the back of the neck and brought the younger down with a gentle but firm control. I fancy that it was because the angle had changed and he was showing how even if the technique fails, it still can be useful. Finally, the younger man threw a low punch which the elder deflected on the inside. He struck his friend’s ribs with the palm of his hand in a way that cannot be described. I cannot identify just what it was about the way he pulled his fingers back to expose the heel of his hand, but it was obvious to me that this man had been training for decades. After that they started talking and both sat down. Because they had not yet acknowledged me, I felt it too rude to intrude and demand that they teach me something. But it was a remarkable and glorious slice of martial arts in the exotic east.

Oh, and as it happened, I had passed the laundromat very early-on in my adventure. I had just been looking across the street, rather than right next to me. I think I was supposed to walk past that laundry so that it would lead me to the old man. I am grateful for the opportunity.

That’s all for now my friends. Perhaps the second half of my Singapore trip will come soon! Thanks for reading!

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One thought on “Stories from Singapore

  1. […] holiday photos I promised from my recent adventures in London, York, Yorkshire, the Peak District, Singapore (parts 1 and 2), Penang and Ipoh. The formatting isn’t great, and captions make it worse, so […]

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