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Sipping the Singapore Sling (a cocktail made of gin, benedict, cherry brandy and soda) on the Singapore Airlines flight, I started planning my trip to Singapore. Rachit promised me a lot to see and experience. My mind conjured up images of Chinese men in high-rises and business suits. Would Singapore be different from Mumbai? Maybe. It would be much cleaner and without slums, that’s for sure. My aunt told me about shopping malls and Chinatown where I can buy cheap porcelain. I hate shopping. I was wondering if there was anything else I could do. When the plane landed at Changi International Airport (definitely the best I’ve seen so far), I was breathless. It was my longest flight, my furthest flight.
Home, miles away
I’ve heard a lot about Changi – what it has to offer to the millions of tourists who come here for shopping, entertainment and dining. In fact, even before landing, it was recommended that I spend three hours on Changi alone on the day of my return. But strangely, Changi didn’t dazzle me. Yes, I was fascinated by the malls, the transporters (a first for me) and the escalators, and I saw a number of people with Caucasian and Mongoloid features. But somehow I didn’t feel like a stranger.
We walked out of the airport and hailed a taxi – one with Incredible India ads on it. As we got out, the city reminded me of Mumbai or Kolkata – or a bit of both. As we headed downtown, Rachi pointed to the Singapore Flyer and the tower nearby. “This is the image of Singapore that is everywhere,” he said. Oh, indeed!
There is no room for us
The taxi pulled up to the YMCA at One Orchard Road, one of Singapore’s poshest addresses. We thanked the taxi driver and entered the elegant lobby of the YMCA. The receptionist checked our booking (S$90 per room per night) and calmly informed us that we could only check in at 2pm. It was 8 o’clock. We begged him for a room, but he just said they were all taken. Shocked, we decided to leave our bags there and went out for breakfast. I thought Singapore would be like Mumbai. Unfortunately I was wrong. You can find food anywhere in Mumbai at any time of the day. In Singapore, the day starts at 11am. Before that, it is difficult to find food. We found ourselves sinking our teeth into a S$5.80 Subway sandwich. So much for the Singapore experience!
Is there a river in Singapore?
I was supposed to meet Shreyasi after six years. It’s not like we were best friends in college, but when you go to a foreign land, you get excited to see familiar faces. We were supposed to meet Shreyasi at 12 noon. I told him how we were welcomed at the YMCA. He was worried. Fortunately, the receptionist found a free room at 10.30. At 11 o’clock we finally had a roof over our heads. I then dialed Shreyasi’s number (we bought a S$50 SIM card at the airport). Shreyasi asked us to meet at Riccotti, an Italian restaurant by the Singapore River. “Is there a river in Singapore that I didn’t know about?” He said, “Well, this used to be part of the sea that came in here. It’s been desalinated and now the water is drinkable.” Wow! And we in Mumbai turned Mithi into a sea!
Since we were supposed to be traveling on the cheap, we decided to buy an Ezy-Link card from the MRT (short for Mass Rapid Transit). The swipe card (we bought one for S$10) allows you to travel on the subway and buses all over Singapore. This is a boon for commuters as taxi fares are ridiculously high. Simply swipe the card at the station where you board the train and swipe it at the boarding station. It’s that simple! And if you’re wondering why Singaporeans aren’t fat, it’s because they have to do a lot of walking and climbing (yes, there are escalators) on the MRT every day.
Shopping in Chinatown
I thought I would have problems bargaining and communicating with the warehousemen in Chinatown. Instead, they struggled to follow what we wanted. Indians love to browse the goods in the market. If we spend two hours shopping, it is roughly divided into 1.45 minutes of browsing time and 15 minutes of actual shopping time. We are used to being pampered by our shopkeepers, who show us all their wares before starting to bargain. They offer us tea or cold drinks, so we have time to decide what to buy. And when we leave after a bargain, they run after us and offer the piece at our price. The Chinese are a little different. They don’t like you browsing the merchandise without picking something up. They don’t pamper you. If you haggle, they’ll offer you a lower price (“Okay, buy three for S$10”) that you won’t think twice about. If you leave, they’ll just turn their backs on you and look for the next one. All that matters is traffic. Who cares about customer service? Made in China we bought bags, pouches, scarves, a Chinese jewelry box, a Chinese compass, chopsticks, and tissue blankets.
“I eat anything that moves”
It was Rachit’s idea. I never dreamed I’d be munching on kebabs in Singapore, but Rachit insisted we check out one of his favorite places – Arab Street near the Sultan Mosque. And he managed to get Geo and Kedar to join each other after a round of drinks. Location: al-Majlis. We settled on the carpet and ordered sheesha, mixed lamb and chicken kebabs, hummus and pitta bread. I was wondering what to order when Geo turned to me and said, “Arre bindaas maar. Main hoon na. I’ll eat anything that moves.” “Pig and beef?” “Yes.” Frog? “I’ve tried the frog leg soup, which is a specialty in Singapore (as is the pork organ soup!), but I don’t recommend it as it doesn’t have much meat.” Sip!
Orchids in a cage
My aunt suggested I visit the Singapore Zoo and pose with the orangutans there. Rachit didn’t like the idea of furry primates anywhere near me. So he took me to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The patch of green was a welcome sight after the malls of Orchard Road. The idea of creating a national garden started in 1822, when Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, created the first botanical and experimental garden at Fort Canning (yes, it was there!). We checked out the Swan Lake where he saw two swans strutting around and what hopefully looked like a swimming turtle. Next stop: Orchid garden. We bought a S$5 ticket to see the orchids in a cage! Surely there was no chance for them to escape. We took pictures and then headed to the ‘rainforest’ which was pretty close to the ‘real thing’ except it wasn’t like a caterpillar! “A rainforest without insects!” Then I saw the pest control van… We quickly went over to the ginger garden where we realized that turmeric is in the same family and then decided to go to the ‘Coolhouse’. I half expected winter plants in an air-conditioned greenhouse. What I found were tropical ferns, epiphytes and pitcher plants. This was definitely the best part of the trip. Like the others, it was a controlled environment, but the huge pitchers showed signs of insect life. Finally!
Singapore’s favorite food is everywhere. It is tossed between pork organ soup and frog legs in most restaurants and Chinese roadside stands. Francis Ong, a friend of Rachit’s, told me, “We Singaporeans oscillate between paprika and chili.” At Francis’ recommendation, a group of prospective MBA graduates from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) gathered at Mellben Seafood in Ang Mo Kio. Kati and Francis insisted, “We get the best chilli crab in Singapore.” Rachit and I tried a version of the soft shell crab at Sentosa, but Rachit told me he would miss the real thing. But with Francis by our side, we couldn’t have gone wrong. The crab arrived – all red and doused in chili sauce – ready to eat. But Alis and Rosemary decided to capture it in its original state before chewing it in our mouths. We waited for the end of the “shot” and then simply tore the crab apart – claw to claw. No one cared about the clamshell. We worked on it with our hands, incisors, molars and tongue. Ferenc scoffed at us when we put the leftovers aside on a separate plate. “This is the way to do it,” he said, pointing to the pile of shells on the table. Other dishes on the platter included seaweed, grain crab (again a favorite), buns, pepper crab and something reminiscent of Manchurian chicken. I was tempted to dig in, but decided to ask Francis what it was. “Frog.” I saw the familiar figure. Kati told me to try it. “It tastes just like chicken.” I looked at it again and imagined it with the skin. “No! I don’t think I have the stomach for it.” Dinner costs S$419 for 13 people. It is worth eating in large groups!
are you indian Are you sure?
I was surprised when I was asked this question at the Singapore checkpoint on the way back from Tioman, Malaysia. I was asked the same question at Starbucks and even Little India (where I found Singtel booklets in Bangla). Later, Kedar told me, “Because of the large Tamil population here, people tend to think of Indians as dark-skinned, curly-haired. I’ve been asked the same thing. I’m sure they’ve never heard of Maharashtrians, much less Kokanastha Brahmins.” A little comfort!
Shorts and high heels
I remember Almas telling me on Facebook that women in Singapore always wear high heels. Not only did I not believe him, but I decided to bring my kitten heels with me. During my first MRT trip to Clarke Quay (pronounced Clar-key), I noticed women in black shorts, formal shirts and jackets balancing on toes and high-waisted trousers. Ouch! Shorts to work? Rachit said, “That’s how it is here. The more you show, the better!”
The hat and the cape!
We had to buy Rachit’s prom dress from Serangoon Broadway. Since NTU had an exclusive relationship with the store, the store owner decided to take advantage and took care of the packages. “If you buy the dress, it costs S$42. If you buy a pack of 2 photos for S$100, you get a free dress. There were people willing to shell out S$2,000 for a big photo and a free dress!
No history, no culture
When I was looking for tourist spots in Singapore, I didn’t find many places that appealed to me. The preserves are so well maintained (no creepy-crawlies) that they almost seem artificial. The malls are sleek and clean, but we’ve seen enough of these brands in India. On Orchard Road is the National Museum, where you can learn about the struggle for an independent Singapore, and there is the British-built St Andrews Church and City Hall near the Esplanade. But that’s about it. In order to become modern, Singapore had to give up its history. It is more about commerce than culture, technology than humanity. When I mentioned to Francis that I find Malaysians more cheerful, he said that Singaporeans can be grumpy because of the hectic pace of life in a very controlled environment. The media is controlled so the expression and formation of opinions and ideas is limited, Rachit said. Chewing gum is prohibited and the houses of foreign journalists are often ransacked. The 60km X 40km island offers limited freedom but unlimited opportunities to acquire the wealth you can buy that freedom by traveling to the US or Canada like wealthier Singaporeans. This is the choice of the locals. As for tourists, they should be happy to shop.
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