I’ve been in Asia for less than 48 hours, and already I’m overwhelmed by everything I’ve seen and done. I’m realizing that it’s going to be hard to keep up with blogging about it all, and I know that I am going to want and need to disconnect and just “be.” I’m also keeping a written journal for my personal use, so I’m adjusting my expectations a bit.
When I got on the plane back at JFK after an amazing New Year’s weekend with my sisters, I started thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. I landed in Shanghai nearly 16 hours later, and it seemed like even less of a good idea. I slept restlessly on the long flight, again on a bench for much of my layover, and again on the five-hour overnight flight to Singapore, and so for 24 hours I was confused and tired. It was only when I landed that I fully realized that it’s just me here. It was early (like 5:30 am), I didn’t have a working smartphone or the slightest clue how to get from the airport to my hostel, and I had to just figure it out. It was also during this long trek from the airport to the MRT train to my hostel in the blistering heat and humidity that I understood why you are supposed to do a test run with your fully packed backpack. Ooof.
I took a quick nap after checking into my hostel and rallied for a trip to Kampong Glam, Singapore’s history Malay-Muslim neighborhood. It’s not so much a residential area — I’m under the impression that a significant proportion of this population actually lives in Katong/Joo Chiat, where my hostel was — as a symbol of the country’s Muslim community and Malay population dating back to the pre-colonial era. At the center is the Sultan Mosque, from which radiate streets of shophouses and cafes.
I visited the mosque, where I chatted with a man about the meaning of the prayer clock and the interior decor, and wandered into fabric shops and rug boutiques. My mom would have been completely overwhelmed by the bolts of silk and the walls of buttons and trim and the stacks of hand-woven carpets.
I stopped for lunch at a stall with a view of the mosque. I believe it was Indonesian food, and though I’m still not entirely sure what I was eating, it was delicious. Maybe rice with chili sauce, long bean and tofu salad, and a samosa? Even though everything is written in English, and often there are pictures of menu options posted at restaurants and stalls, I’m so unfamiliar with the terminology that I have to just guess and point and hope it tastes good. So far, it has! I watched people arrive for midday prayers for a bit and took advantage of the fans under the stall’s awning.
Let me pause here to say that it is unbearably hot in Singapore. And it’s not just hot — it’s humid. Like D.C.-in-August humid. Temperature-85-feels-like-100 humid. I have resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably be sweating continuously for the next three months, so that makes it easier to get over it and let life go on. And since I have no reason to dress up or wear makeup or dry my hair, I’m less concerned with being a puddle of perspiration day in and day out.
I needed another nap (and a shower) before my evening adventure: a food/culture walk with the owner of my hostel. This free tour was the whole reason I opted to stay outside the city center in the residential neighborhood of Joo Chiat. When I was hauling my backpack a mile from the closest MRT station, I was kicking myself, but now I’m glad that I’m in an area where Singaporeans actually live and work. In fact, the past president resides just two streets over.
As proof of this, the only Westerners I saw for my entire first day were inside my hostel. I found them all in Chinatown a day later. I wouldn’t have thought to venture off that tourist trail otherwise, and now I realize that having to take the MRT to major sites is a totally fair trade-off.
Anyway, the tour took us up to the top of a state housing building to watch the sunset; to several food stalls to sample Malay, Chinese, and Singaporean cuisine; and around homes and apartment complexes that surround the busy Joo Chiat street.
As a group, we sampled more than 30 dishes over the course of the evening, including laksa, chili crab, Chinese rice dumplings, milo dinosaur (a chocolate drink so named for the mounds of cocoa powder found on top resembling dinosaur skin), fish head curry, biryani, murtabak, rojak, fried frog legs, chendol, and various other meat and seafood stews and salads. It came out in such large quantities so quickly that I couldn’t absorb the details of it all, but I think it’s fair to say that I ate a representative sample of what’s available here.
Tony, our guide, had nearly seven hours worth of information to share, and I learned more about Singapore than I ever could from reading a guidebook or visiting a museum.
Some fun facts:
- Singapore is a melting pot of ethnicities (the largest are Chinese, Malay, and Indian) and religions (Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism; a rapidly growing Christian population; as well as Judaism and others). The only group that is actually illegal is Jehovah’s Witness because they decline to participate in compulsory military service. Otherwise, it’s a fairly tolerant place — even Mormons have a role here, though they aren’t able to go door to door because leafleting is also illegal.
- English is Singapore’s first official language (for business and communication), but all public signs are also written in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. All children learn English in school as well as whatever their heritage language is.
- Chewing gum as a product is not actually illegal — buying, selling, and importing chewing gum is illegal. If I brought gum through customs, technically I would be trafficking in illegal goods. Sugar-free and nicotine gum is available, ostensibly for “medicinal purposes.”
- The majority of Singpore residents live in estate (HDB) housing owned and purchased for 99-year leases from the government. It’s not the same concept of the state-sponsored living we have in the U.S. — the apartments are quite nice, kept up well, complete with many amenities like parks, playgrounds, and gyms, and crazy expensive.
- Related, the government mandates the percentage of each ethnicity that can live in each development such that it matches national demographics. So if a Chinese family wants to sell their apartment, they can only sell to another Chinese family unless the government reconfigures the breakdown. Crazy, right? And the waiting list to purchase these properties is years long.
- Homelessness is illegal, and the state sponsors an extensive assistance program that provides housing and education/job training.
- Prostitution is legal and always has been, though only at licensed brothels in certain red light districts with licensed prostitutes. However, most hookers in Singapore are off the books, and Joo Chiat appears to be an unofficial red light district. The view out my hostel window at night is interesting, to say the least.
- Owning a car is exorbitantly expensive because residents have to purchase 10-year certificates of entitlement in order to even consider purchasing a vehicle, and these certificates are limited in number and cost tens of thousands of dollars depending on the market. It’s a small island, you can understand why they want to limit the number of cars. It doesn’t seem to work, however — people will pay whatever it takes.
- Shopping is a national pastime, and it seems that all spare land is being developed into malls.
- There is very little crime because punishment is very severe (you get the death penalty for a lot of offenses), and it’s easy to feel safe and trusting anywhere you go.
So Singapore is like this weird social experiment for a utopian society — public messages are bright and rosy and all about building community, and the state takes excellent care to maintain facilities and programs for its citizens. There’s a lot to learn for such a small country, and since I only have three days here, I have to soak it up quickly and in large quantities!
Note: I’m working on creating a Zenfolio gallery for all of my images, as I can’t upload them all to the blog.