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We are surrounded by the whirr and hum of electric motors. Cool air blows through ceiling vents like anaesthetic. Around us, people sit quietly, staring forward blankly as if afraid of inadvertent eye contact. Most wear white IPOD headphones. Some read the paper. The train is full, but there is only the sound of its motors, the air-conditioning, and the occasional shuffling footfalls.
The MRT subway train is our first experience of Singapore as we ride from the airport into town, then transfer to a train that will take us to our hostel. It is utterly clean, orderly, and expensive. Pretty much like the rest of the city, we would discover.
We visit the Botanic Gardens on our first day, emerging from the subway station into a street of towering shopping malls. An utterly clean city bus takes us to the gardens where the driver ensures we get off at the right stop and points us toward the entrance.
The gardens are perfectly landscaped and manicured with fences in most places to keep you off the grass. We pay $10 each for the orchid garden and are truly impressed by the variety and beauty of the flowers there. We are realizing, however, that the prices here are the same or greater than in Canada, and we will struggle to stick to our daily budget.
We walk amidst the shopping malls in search of a place for dinner. I feel out of place and awkward walking through the expensive, plate glass and marbled malls amidst the beautiful people clad in designer clothes, hands full of shopping bags. We find a food court in a mall and eat mediocre Thai food for $8 each. It is a shock, as we could have eaten the same meal just a day ago for a small fraction of the price. We return to our guesthouse, tired from our overnight flight from India. I'm still hungry after our small dinner, we visited one attraction, and still we exceeded our daily budget.
The next day, we follow the walking tour of Chinatown shown in our guide. We walk along historic streets where shopping malls now stand, past lawyers offices where there used to be brothels and opium dens, and past tourist shops where a real Chinatown used to be. It feels like a Disneyland attraction: shiny, new, comfortable, and modern with every convenient amenity you might desire. To me, it feels sterile.
The food centre where we eat lunch feels like less of a tourist attraction: locals eat authentic Chinese food from stalls that look exactly like the ones in the Chinese food centre in Richmond. These are "food hawkers" in our guidebook, gems of local cuisine. Our lunch was fine, but nothing special. We return to the famous "food street" in Chinatown for dinner. I buy a plate of satay chicken and pork, and we share a plate of x noodles that I watch fried over a huge wok. It is tasty, but expensive. Perhaps I was expecting more, but I leave feeling nonplussed. There are no hawkers on food street really. It is basically an outdoor foodcourt that you'd find in any shopping mall, complete with letters posted on each indicating their cleanliness grade from the government. We have come a long way from the "Hot Kati Rolls" stand in Kolkata where fried bread was thrown on the counter, filled with spicy meat or vegetables, and handed to you as you lined up along the sidewalk: dirty, smelly, greasy, and utterly tasty.
On another day, we take the walking tour of Little India. It is then that I realize that any trace of history in Singapore is truly buried beneath renovated facades and new buildings. We walk past some sari shops and see an interesting temple. Expecting to see interesting architecture or a glimpse of the past, we finish the tour somewhat disappointed.
We do discover, however, the best food so far in Singapore: in what our guide describes as a "smelly, wet, foul-smelling market" are Indian foodstalls selling roti john (fried bread filled with chicken and egg with chilli sauce), spicy fried noodles with chicken, and -- when we return for lunch the following day -- I line up for spicy and wonderfully tender mutton biryani. Within minutes I'm greeted by a man standing with me in line and we have a pleasant conversation as we wait for our lunch. As he departs with his take-out bags full of food and I turn to meet Laura at a nearby table, he smiles broadly, touches my arm, and bids me a very warm and heartfelt goodbye. It is the first time I've felt more than distance and aloofness from the people here. It is appropriate that I experienced it in Little India from a Sri Lankan expat. The food is tasty. I laugh at how clean and organized the market is ... whoever wrote our guide clearly hasn't been to many smelly and messy markets.
It is appropriate, I suppose, that it is in Singapore that I succumbed to my own shopping demon. I had been looking in several shops and been researching options for a while. It is here, though, that I found myself in a electronics shop with an enthusiastic salesperson agreeing -- after he includes various add-ons in the package -- to buy a camera. Over the past nine months, our automatic camera has become dirty (some of you may have noticed a black spot in the corner of most of our photos). Maybe it can be fixed, maybe not. The new camera will ensure we have good photos for the rest of our trip.
Our last day in Singapore is consumed by the camera purchase we had made a couple of days before. A visit to the Canon warranty centre informs us -- with the stupidity that large corporations manage so well -- that our warranty will not work in Canada, as the company has not made an arrangement with itself to do so. A trip to the airport for a GST rebate leaves us empty-handed as well. Thankfully, when I arrive angrily at the camera store, I at least get a free battery from them in compensation. And if my camera breaks in Canada, I guess Canon will just need to ship it to Singapore to get fixed!
I find myself walking to the camera store late on Sunday night. The mall is full of people. They carry plastic bags with designer logos and the names of fancy shops. The mall glitters with money and echoes with the sounds of cell phones. I want to yell at them to stop. Enough. Stop shopping! Yet I, too, have succumbed and purchased a camera. I feel guilty and a little angry with myself. I cannot be disgusted with the voracious consumerism of this place without feeling it toward myself as well.
Singapore has reminded me of our hunger to buy, to consume, to want. It is as if we are desperately trying to fill a gap with the glittering beautiful things that lure us into shopping malls. We consume and rarely stop to wonder at how easily "need" and "want" are confused. And for each of us who are thinking of splurging, treating ourselves, tempted by this and that, there are at least twice as many who are utterly poor, sick, and desperate for the money that we spend so carelessly.
I cannot wait to leave Singapore with its ultra-clean streets lined with shopping walls. The memory of Kolkatta's poverty and need is too fresh in my memory. It is time to go.
The next day, we do. A bus takes us north to the Malaysian border where we disembark and add another stamp to our passports. Ahead is the airport and a flight to the island of Borneo. As we step into Malaysia, we notice our bus is driving away. Taxi drivers tell us there is no bus to the airport despite the tickets we hold in our hands. No one speaks English (except the taxi drivers!) Where is our bus? How do we get to the airport? We don't have any Malaysian money to buy a ticket or hire a taxi. We've got time before our flight, but not a lot.
We're certainly not in Singapore anymore!
I am giddy with excitement to be arriving in Singapore. I have heard it is so clean that they even check your bags at the airport for contraband chewing gum. After India, I am ready for some spic and span. I am ready for some decadence and some law and order.
We travel with Singapore Airlines and it is a great flight that provides food, free wine and friendly attendants. Too bad it is the middle of the night for us. When we land at 6am in Singapore it dark outside the plane window but the lights of the city highlight the size of this place. We find our bags and then stop for a coffee so we can try and wake up a bit before having to navigate the subway system. Luckily the metro is super-easy to figure out and the signage is excellent. With directions for our hotel, we find our way with no problems. As the subway emerges from underground and takes us out into the morning light, we see a city that is shiny and modern. We cannot believe our eyes - it looks like a movie set! We exit the station and walk a short distance to our backpackers hostel. Our room is one of the cleanest so far on this entire trip. We take a 3-hour nap and then head out to explore the city.
We visit the Bontanic Gardens and the Orchid Centre and I revel in the beauty of the flowers and the lack of people. Where is everyone? Why are the few people we see being so quiet? Why was the bus driver so friendly? And the bus: it was air-conditioned and had lovely background music playing while all the passengers sat quietly (with no one in the aisle, and not one single chicken or goat in sight). We wander down the main shopping strip and it is one gigantic mall after another: Ralph Lauren, Salvatore Ferragamo, Chanel - all the brand names are on parade. Beautiful people in beautiful clothes rush past, their arms full of shopping bags. At an intersection, we stand beside a white baby in a stroller. I am first surprised to see a stroller, as no one uses those in India or Nepal. And then I marvel at the sheer size of the baby. I realize with much sadness that I have grown used to seeing underweight, malnourished babies and that is why this one seems so out of proportion. I too, feel out of place. I feel like a country bumpkin who has somehow landed in the middle of the big city. Now it is me who is staring at the rich people and no one is noticing me.
As much as we are experiencing culture shock here and a disgust at the extreme wealth, especially after just arriving from the extreme poverty in Kolkata, it is a city to be admired in some ways. From an urban planning standpoint, it is quite the spectacle. The mass transit system is efficient and clean and moves millions of people quickly and easily. One could live and work here while easily avoiding the usual traffic headaches of a big city. The restaurant, bars and lounges would keep one occupied for a long time and exploring the various neighbourhoods (Little India, Chinatown, Kompong Glam, etc.) and their restaurants and shops would fill each weekend. But, I imagine it would get routine very quickly. Singapore - a good place to visit if you have money or if your employer sends you on a trip to the massive convention centre. For us, the contrast of Kolkata's 16 million people, half of them living on the street, to Singapore's shiny and perfect 4 million, was too much of a shock. We head to Malyasia in search of middle ground.