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days 30 & 31 – singapore – international love for the english premiership

After saying good bye to Leila (who complained that the Maori woman in our dorm had spent the night snoring and grinding her teeth, which I thankfully slept through), I went out to the National Museum of Singapore. It’s split into two parts – a History Gallery and four Living Galleries.

The History gallery is a little unusual in that everyone has an audio guide and you can choose which route to take through Singapore’s history. One is meant to be the main, major events and the other the perspective of ordinary people throughout time. I like the idea and the audio dramatisations could be quite interesting but I don’t think the two themes were very easily separated and like I did as a kid with those Choose Your Own Adventure books, I wanted to know what I was missing from the other paths. Also, most people read faster than something is narrated and I kept getting impatient and wanting to find out the information faster than it was being told. That I had managed to develop a splitting headache while there probably didn’t help.

The Living Galleries cover the time from the 50s to 70s and are separated into food (popular dishes and their histories*, along with locally used ingredients), fashion (including a lot on women’s emancipation), film and wayang and photography (a lot showing family photos and how this has changed over time – polygamy was only banned as recently as 1961).

There are also some art installations, including one of a giant bubble machine. I can’t remember for the life of me now what it was meant to represent and you had to wait a while for it to produce a bubble without popping right away but it looked pretty impressive when it did. While I was taking photos of the swinging chandeliers in the hallway, a guard came over and told me that they swing to different patterns throughout the day. On finding out that I’m English, he immediately started talking enthusiastically about Manchester United – it turns out football talk is a passport to chattiness in almost all places.

That evening after dinner with Mandy, we sat at the hostel and chatted to some of the other people staying there – an Irish girl called Katrina and a British couple – Nicole and a guy whose name I missed. They had all come down through Asia and so there was a lot of swapping of information, where to stay and where to definitely not stay, as well as moaning about the plummeting of the sterling since we had all planned our trips.

That night I couldn’t sleep because, as Leila had said, the Maori girl ground her teeth in her sleep and snored. Three girls who’s turned up that night got up at half one to find somewhere else.

When I checked my email the next morning, I was relieved to have one from the insurance company saying they would sort out all my hospital bill – I just needed to sign a form. I did so and after puzzling out the hostel’s scanner with one of the staff, LP, I sent it back to them. That done, I went out to the Singapore Art Museum, where they had a big exhibition of Korean contemporary art. I never know what to say about modern art. I enjoy looking at it but I have absolutely no idea how to describe why I particularly liked Lee Ufan’s and Lee Lee Nam’s over other pieces.

I also went to the 8Q gallery, which showcases local artists. There was an exhibition of Friendship Dolls that were part of an exchange between Japan and USA in 1927 – as the war got closer, a lot of them were stored away or destroyed. It was pretty disturbing standing in the small room, having all these boxed dolls staring at you. There was also a video installation showing the artist running around the museum site when it was being renovated (it used to be a school), which for some reason I found so creepy I couldn’t stay in there to watch it properly!

Before going to catch my train from Singapore, I chatted to LP at Footprints reception for almost an hour. She’d done a lot of travelling, (including living in Stoke of all places for a year) but as a Singaporean, still lived at home at the age of 30. She gave me lots of suggestions of things to do in Bangkok and said if I could stretch out my travels for an extra two months, the summer sales in Hong Kong are the place to restock my wardrobe.

On the way to the station, I saw the Swedish man who had volunteered at the dolphin show on Sentosa on the MRT – I know Singapore’s small but I didn’t think it was that small. I then discovered that the main train station is about twenty minutes from the MRT and compared to the rest of the city, a lot older and barer compared to pretty much all other public buildings in Singapore. Like it had been pushed to one side and forgotten about from decades ago.

The sleeper trains from Singapore to Malaysia have an interesting pricing system. As well as having three different classes and top bunks being very slightly cheaper than bottom bunks because there’s a tiny bit less room, if you buy your tickets in Singapore, then you pay in Singapore dollars. If you buy them in Malaysia, you pay the same numerical amount but in Malaysian ringgits. This means that if you buy in Singapore, you pay more than twice than in Malaysia. Crazy. Thankfully, if you buy online, they charge you in ringgits as well.

The cheapest available bunk on the sleeper was, for me at 4’11″, fairly comfy. I can’t imagine what someone does if they’re a few inches taller. Particularly as there’s nowhere to put your luggage except in the bunk with you. I was fairly comfy though and even put on my pyjamas, completely forgetting I would have to go out again when we reached the border for customs and had to scramble to pull clothes on over the top of my PJs.

When the Singapore border control gave me my leaving stamp, he looked at the information and noted my place of birth. Turned out I’d discovered another Liverpool supporter. A similar thing happened flying out to Dublin once – the official that time hadn’t let me through until I told him whether I was a Red or a Blue.

Despite the dire warnings all over the place about carrying prohibited goods over the border, there was nobody there for if you actually wanted to declare something. Bit of an anti-climax really considering we were surrounded by posters reminding us that carrying illegal drugs is the death penalty. Instead, we were all eventually allowed back on the train where I fell fast asleep until the guard came to wake us all up. We were about to arrive in Kuala Lumpur.

*Apparently sweet potatoes are no longer popular in Singapore because of its associations with the Japanese occupation.

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day 29 – singapore – the dangers of using public transport and nature walk trails

I joined the breakfast queue for toast on Monday morning, slightly sleepy and glad to see there were still tiny bananas left. While I waited, thinking that the toaster seemed to be taking a long while for the girl in front of me, the queue built up. Then an Irish girl behind piped up helpfully, “have you turned the toaster on?”

The girl in front immediately looked embarrassed and sure enough, she hadn’t depressed the lever and did so hurriedly. Not long later, fresh toast popped up. Or at least one slice did, the other one stuck. Reaching for a knife, she started to push it into the toaster before I suggested she might want to turn it off at the plug first. Mandy, as she turned out to be called, is also from England (London) and after having travelled for six weeks has so far lost one camera, broken another, lost a bag, shorted her converter plugs with her hairdryer and I lost track of what else. I am not alone! And I haven’t broken anything yet!

After Leila came to join us (and replied to me asking if she was going to have some breakfast with a very French, “Nevaire!”), we decided to head over to Sentosa Island, a place I’d had on my list to go to but didn’t think would be very much fun on my own. On the MRT to get the Sentosa Express, there are videos playing, often with trailers for new films or other adverts. On this journey though, they were showing a PSA about averting terrorism on the MRT. It began with an admonition to not think it won’t happen, before showing images from Madrid, London and Mumbai public transport bombings. Then it went on about what to do if you suspect somebody is carrying a bomb, which brought the mood down a little! On the Sentosa Express, the monorail over to the island, we went over a large section of construction work – apparently if I go back in about a year, that space will be filled with casinos and a Universal Studios theme park.

Sentosa Island has a military history but now is basically a tourist trap (with very bad and offensively pricey food to match). It is covered in rainforest and has long, white beaches, which are entirely artificial – the sand was imported from Malaysia and Indonesia. A lot of the island itself is reclaimed land. We started off with the luge, which admittedly was almost my entire reason for wanting to go there. It’s essentially a toboggan on wheels that you ride downhill, steering it yourself and is incredibly good fun. We set off – Mandy in front and I was followed by Leila’s screams. To get back up to the top again, you take a chairlift and the view is amazing, while you swing your legs over the treetops.

We realised when we’d reached the top, that we actually wanted to be back down at the bottom again and decided to walk, taking the “Nature Trail” through the rainforest, which has kitsch stone statues of dragons and a small man-made waterfall. It was fairly uneventful, apart from Leila’s fretting every time we came across a sign that described another snake we could possibly see, but when we got to the bottom, we found plastic netting across the path entrance and once we’d squeezed round it onto the road, discovered there was a sign that told us “Danger! Keep Out!” It would have been nice to have been told this at the top of the trail.

Involving less danger, we went to the Underwater World (I can never get enough of aquariums), which was cool for what they had – including a manta petting pool – but seemed very small, especially after having been to Sydney’s so recently. It did include free entry to the Dolphin Lagoon though and we went and saw the pink dolphins show. Apparently pink dolphins start out grey but grow more pink as they age, these were mottled pink on grey, giving them an odd appearance. I’m never entirely sure how I feel about dolphin shows. Similarly to zoos, I can appreciate that animals that are endangered in the wild are being protected and preserved in captivity but it still makes me feel uncomfortable to see them* in cages. But I guess if dolphins are already in captivity, it would be far worse if they were bored, so learning tricks and frequently having their brains exercised, is, I am guessing, a good thing. I also sometimes get the suspicion that when I watch a dolphin balancing a ball on its nose, it’s patronising me. Anyway, one thing that I did think was cool about the show was they had two volunteers from the audience (a middle-aged Swedish guy and a Japanese girl, probably in her early twenties) get into the water with the dolphins and meet them. I would have loved to if it hadn’t meant I’d have to spend the rest of the day in clothes wet up to my neckline.

With all of us on a budget, there was nothing else we were willing to spend our Singapore dollars on – although another ride on the luge would have been tempting – so we headed back to the main land. Leila, who was returning to France the next day, was determined to turn up at the airport and freak her mother out. She had a fake tattoo sprayed on and when we got into Chinatown, set off on a mission to find a blond wig that would be realistic enough to make her mother think she’d bleached her hair. I think we must have gone to every purveyor of wigs in Chinatown and when Leila eventually found one that wasn’t too expensive (she wanted to annoy her mum but not at the cost of $70), it turned out they didn’t accept credit cards and she didn’t have enough cash anyway.

Chinatown was all decorate for New Year with golden oxen everywhere, including a centre piece of Disney-esque rats pulling a cart with two oxen in – I’m assuming representing the changing from Year of the Rat. As we were going through a market, a man forcefully offered his whitening cream at us, dabbing some on Mandy’s arm, while Leila and I dodged. None of us were likely customers, particularly Mandy who’d put a lot of effort into getting her tan! It’s funny how caucasians aim to go darker, while darker skinned races are aiming to get lighter – a lot of sun screen has whitening in as well. Is there some intermediate, holy grail of skin colour or do we pass through, just trying to get as dark/or as light as possible?

As we were based in Little India, we decided it was probably a good idea to get Indian food and went to a place where the food was great and cheap but the waiter would come over, you’d ask a question of a dish (such as “does this have nuts in?”) then he’d go away again before you could order. Afterward, we were about to head out of Little India to get a drink, as Mandy was hoping for a Singapore Sling before she left. On our way through the very busy market though, we first caught sight of a group of people around a pen containing kids (as in baby goats, not children), next to a pen with cows. As we got closer, we could see a stage on which women were dancing, equipped with bells and sticks (looking something like an Indian Morris dance) and some explanatory posters, telling us that we had stumbled across Pungol – a Tamil harvest festival. Very colourful and was fun to watch. We hung around there for a while before leaving to find a bar.

Alcohol is incredibly expensive in Singapore and in bars, beer is almost as much as cocktails (although cheaper if you have it in a food court) but we went to No 5, on Emerald Hill, just off Orchard Road, where Mandy had her Singapore Sling and I tried a mojito (it was good). Leila, being Muslim, opted for a far cheaper Coke and ate the free peanuts, discarding the shells on the floor. I wondered if walking in flip flops over a carpet of peanut shells was entirely safe.

We returned to Little India at about 11pm by bus and tired, we walked mostly in silence from the bus stop. It was still quite busy – a lot of people walking about and groups of guys hanging out outside restaurants, or seated on the pavement – but I felt uncomfortable without realising why. Then abruptly Leila announced, “I hate this kind of place. Only men everywhere.” And that’s when it dawned on me, she was right. Despite the area still being filled with people, not a single one of them was female.

“At least they’re not heckling us,” Mandy said. “They do in Malaysia all the time.”

“Although they’re not worried about staring,” I pointed out, as right on cue a group of men watched us openly as we walked past.

It wasn’t scary, exactly, although I may have felt differently if I’d been on my own, but it does annoy. Probably shouldn’t have been surprised given the area our hostel was in. Still, I slept well that night – the alcohol probably helped.

*Mammals anyway, I don’t usually have the same worry about reptiles or fish, which probably says more about my tendency to anthropomorphise certain animals than it does about their actual welfare.

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days 27 & 28 – qf0081/singapore – art and shopping

So far, Sydney airport is losing badly in the airport shopping league. I tried to find sunscreen – absolutely none to be seen. Of all the places! My flight included an hour’s stop in Adelaide and I actually talked to the girl whose seat was next to me on the plane – sort of anyway. I helped her with her enormous carry on luggage and we made small talk in Adelaide after being kicked off the plane. It eventually dissipated into awkwardness as we ran out of things to say. Relations were probably made even more awkward after I accidentally elbowed her in the head when trying to get past to go to the toilet – I have no idea how! I mostly stayed awake (shocking) and can now add Ghost Town (better than I expected) and half of Tropic Thunder (meh) to my “films seen on planes” list – if I was to have such a list anyway.

At Singapore airport, I got very suspicious looks from the passport control official who asked me to confirm my name. My passport photo doesn’t look much like me, it’s going to get me into trouble one of these days but from there it was a pretty simple matter of getting on the MRT (Singapore’s very clean metro system, where you are forbidden, amongst other things, to bring on durians) to get to my hostel. A little unusually, when buying a ticket you also pay a deposit of $1 (about 45p), which you get back when you return the plastic ticket at the machine at the other end of your journey.

Children can travel for free on the MRT but instead of there being an age limit for this, there’s a height limit. If you’re under 0.9m, you don’t have to pay, which has to be an unexpected benefit of being a midget (no comments from the peanut gallery, thank you.) Has to be annoying for the parents of particularly tall children though – in order to save money, I wonder if they press down on their kids’ heads to prevent them growing too fast – a modern day feet binding exercise.

Singapore is to travelling around south east Asia what stabilisers are to learning to ride a bike. With English as a main language, that’s one barrier you don’t have to deal with, it’s a city state so you don’t have far to go to get anywhere and crime is very low.

I was musing on this on the MRT as I looked out of the station and thought, I’ve already been through this station, just as we pulled away again. It dawned on me that instead of going through Tanah Merah and carrying on along the (usefully, if not imaginatively named) East West line, it had instead turned back to go to the airport. Anyone getting off at Tanah Merah who noticed me must have wondered why I was still sitting there. I’d thought it odd that so many people disembarked then. There was probably a similar reaction to me staying on the train at Changi Airport, only this time feeling awkward and self-conscious. It’s a shame, I was really hoping to put off a travel-related blunder for a little longer.

I eventually, after having to change three times, made it to Little India, then past many delicious smelling eateries, to the Footprints Hostel. I must have been feeling especially ditzy because no sooner had I been checked in, settled my bill (almost forgot my change) and gone up one flight of stairs, I’d forgotten which room was mine, which bed in said questionable room and how the key cards work. Eventually, I realised it had all been written on my receipt and after chatting to the only other person in my dorm who was on her way to going to see Australia and New Zealand, following the death of her husband last year, forced myself to stay awake another hour until a reasonable bedtime.

The next morning I was briefly woken by the call to prayer and fell asleep again almost immediately, later thinking I’d dreamt it. I woke up again to the sound of very familiar hymns and realised it was Sunday morning. The hostel provides free breakfast – toast, jam and bananas if you get there quickly enough – and I filled up before heading out. The Singapore Fringe is on and while judging by the booklet it’s not nearly as extensive as the Edinburgh Fringe, there still seemed to be some interesting things to go see. Unfortunately, I seemed to have arrived in a gap between the theatre and dance performances and the only one showing while I was there, Frozen Angels, I had no idea how to get tickets for. I tried going to the Museum where they were holding it and was just told I had to go to a ticket agent.

So instead, I set off for The Durian, or Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay, to give it its official name. Apparently, like The Gherkin in London, if you ask any local for it by its actual name, you’ll just get blank looks. It’s called The Durian because of the aluminium sunshades on the top, which gives it its spiky appearance. From what I could tell it’s a concert hall, theatre, exhibition space, shopping mall and restaurant centre under one prickly roof. Two of the Fringe art exhibitions were being exhibited here, one, I was surprised to find, on the walls of the underpass that leads from one side of the road to the other. Days With My Father by Phillip Toledano is a series of photographs of his father, who has short term memory loss and who he has been looking after since his mother died.

The second exhibition was the Museum of Broken Relationships. People have donated objects from past relationships, how long the relationship lasted and the stories behind the object; all sorts from day-long flings, to many years of marriage. There was an axe that someone had used to chop up her partner’s furniture after she cheated on her; a wedding dress that had the addendum of “if I get married again, can I have it back?”; a prosthetic leg from a Balkan war veteran that had been in love with a nurse in the hospital.

The story that made me saddest was attached to a light for a dog collar. The man wrote that he left his wife after several years because he didn’t think it was working out, later learning that he had depression. He moved to another country, was incredibly unhappy the whole time without her and she didn’t take it well at all, committing suicide a year later. They’d stayed in contact before then and the light was the same as the one that she had put on their dog’s collar, so that they could find it if it got lost in the woods. She wanted him to find his way back to her. It seemed so sad that a couple that seemed so much unhappier apart, couldn’t find a way to work out what they had. Maybe I’m just naïve but I don’t really get it.

I liked both exhibitions a lot but while both being beautiful in their own ways, were definitely depressing. I decided to go shopping in Orchard Road because I really needed a pair of shorts or a skirt, and after reading guidebooks about appropriate dress in Muslim countries, was now sufficiently paranoid enough to decide that I probably needed more clothes that covered my shoulders.

I have no idea why I thought that this was a good idea after such a sad morning – I hate shopping for clothes. I quite like clothes themselves but I loathe having to go buy them; the endless browsing, the trying on of things that never fit me, the frustration that inevitably leads to me either buying the first thing I tried on (and then the trying it on again at home and deciding it looks a lot worse than it did in the changing room) or abandoning the whole activity entirely for another day. I did think being in Singapore I would find it easier to get clothes but seems not. I don’t get it – I see plenty of other women built on a similar scale to me, I just wanted to grab them and ask where they buy their outfits.

My eventual cure for shopping blues was an hour (no exaggeration) browsing in a book shop*. And then another 30 minutes in another book shop. After that, all seemed better and I set out to buy a pair of cropped linen trousers, which are a size too big, and a loose sheer top that makes me look pregnant.

On my way back to the hostel, I once again heard the call to prayer and realised that I hadn’t been dreaming that morning and that was probably to be expected being round the corner from a mosque. As well as next door to a church and down the street from a Hindu temple. In my ten-bed dorm, judging by the made beds (the plastic covering on the mattress means you wake up every morning with your bottom sheet all over the place) a few more people had been added to the room. The only one in there though was Leila, a French-born Algerian, who was on her way back home to Paris after travelling around Fiji, New Zealand and Australia with her sister. She spent a long time fiddling with the lock on her bag, as she was terrified someone would use her as an unsuspecting drugs mule – possession of more than 20g of illegal drugs carries a punishment of mandatory execution – and told me about the woman on passport control who hadn’t known where Algeria was and after Leila explained it was in Africa, expressed surprise that there were Arabic people in the continent. For someone who works in an airport of such a multicultural state, this baffled us both.

I spent the rest of the evening trying to keep myself awake by watching The Terminal, which was on TV. There were pretty frequent advert breaks but I find when I watch telly abroad, I don’t get annoyed by them as I would back home because all the commercials are unfamiliar and for products I often don’t know. I also had a look through a copy of Idle Banter, Singapore’s premier comedy magazine, according to the front cover. Like many magazines, it began with an Editor’s Welcome letter and this one started with the following:

According to a report I watched on telly the other day, one of the side effects of the credit crunch in the UK is an alarming 10% national increase in shoplifting.

Amazed I went on to read about an interview with “Stan, the chief security guard of a large department store in Peterborough” and the rest of the piece was entirely about Peterborough: an English town of 150,000 people that unless they have lived in or around there, most British people only know because they’ve changed trains at its station.

*After having spent so long poring over Lonely Planet’s South East Asia on a Shoestring, I was curious as to what guidebooks say about the UK. Turns out both Lonely Planet and Rough Guide say there is no easily definable British psyche and everything is expensive.

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