Friday, January 16, 2009

I Heart Singapore!

I wanted to get out of the hustle of Colombo, so yesterday I came to Singapore. Singapore is a City/State, an independent republic and former British colony, which seceded from Malaysia in 1963. I love it here. It’s Tropical-Urban-Asia-Lite. Let’s do a little comparison to Colombo – Singapore: population: 4.8 million; Colombo: 5.6 million. Singapore: pristine and orderly; Colombo: filthy and chaotic. Singapore: everything runs on time; Colombo: don’t hold your breath. Singapore: no one hassles you; Colombo: just try walking down the street without someone getting in your personal space. Singapore: safe no matter where, no matter what time; Colombo: not. I wanted a break and I wanted to see a little more of Asia than just Sri Lanka, Singapore fit the bill.

I’m only here for two days so my agenda is fairly limited. I got in yesterday at about 3pm and immediately caught the shuttle from my hotel to Orchard Road. Orchard Road is the shopping-Mecca of Singapore (and Singapore is the shopping-Mecca of Asia; some people consider Dubai to be the shopping-Mecca of Asia, but we all know how I feel about Dubai. This is making me wonder if there’s good shopping in Mecca). I expected a long road of storefronts from Gucci to what I hoped would be shops more in my price-range. What I found was a long road of shopping malls – not shop after shop, but mall after mall, one after another, both sides of the street. I know that probably sounds like hell to a lot of people, and contrary to popular belief, I do NOT love to shop, but I was in the mood, it was part of the reason I came here, and it was, if not exactly “fun,” successful. No major damage was done to the bank account; while things here aren’t as cheap as in Colombo, they’re still pretty cheap (at least in the kinds of stores I went into), and a lot more stylish. All I did yesterday was shop, eat, and walk. I only bought three things but I covered a lot of ground and watched a lot of people. At the end of the day, instead of taking a taxi or the MRT (metro) back to my hotel from the center of town, I walked back which took about an hour. It’s warm here but not sweltering and I wanted to get a feel for the place by walking; that was Day 1.

Today I started the day by eating some gyozas on a stick. There is absolutely no reason to put gyozas (I have a feeling the plural of “gyoza” is “gyoza,” but I’m going with“gyozas” anyway) on a stick, but I was emailing a friend last night who suggested I eat some food on a stick today, and there they were. This was back on Orchard Road, to which I returned in order to stop by the tourist office to find out about tours of the city. I’m not usually a “city-tour” kind of traveler, but I wanted to get a feel for Singapore outside the shopping district so I bought a ticket for one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses that are in so many places (this one was actually run by the same company that does Ride the Duck Tours; god help me). The double-decker, open-top bus travels in a circle and you can, you know… hop on or hop off at any designated stop and catch the next one that comes around when you’re ready to move on. I didn’t really want to walk around any of the places it stopped, so I just rode the entire circle to see a bit more of the city and got off nearly back where I started; this took about an hour. In a way, Singapore reminds me a bit of Dubai (although Dubai is about eight times its size), but without the soullessness and with far more green space.

Actually, the only similarity to Dubai is the prevalance of modern architecture, although I think Singapore’s is much nicer, and remnants of Singapore's colonial history remain which is also nice. After finally hopping off the tour bus, I did a bit more shopping (since I was back on Orchard Road) and then took another tourist bus to the Night Safari. This was my other big reason for coming to Singapore. So many people had told me how cool the Singapore Night Safari is and I wanted to check it out. If I understand correctly, it’s a tour that runs next to the zoo, or it might actually be part of the zoo, I couldn’t quite tell. You ride a tram around a loop that passes by about 30 animal habitats, and this being Singapore, all the animals seem to be standing right at the edge of their habitats for optimal viewing – they appear fluffed and waiting, teeth brushed, smiling for the cameras, and all but waving their paws at the tram as you go by. Lions, tigers, sloth (I just found out that the plural of “sloth” is “sloth”), a rhino, flamingos, elephants, giraffes, giant anteaters, capybara (the world’s largest rodent; not sure about the plural form but you definitely wouldn't want even one scavenging through your trash), and many others. Most of these animals are more active at night, hence the beauty of the Night Safari; so instead of trying to get a glimpse of a napping tiger in the far reaches of a den at the zoo, the habitats are designed (and the evening meal set out) in such a way that the animals end up strolling around right in front of the tram-way (okay, the lions and tigers were napping tonight, but they were really easy to spot; one of the lions was lying on his side with one leg in the air). And to address the obvious problem of animal-spotting at night, the habitats are lit so they are illuminated enough to see the animals, but the light is in no way glaring; it was however, too dim to get any decent photos – flash photography being strictly forbidden.

After the safari, I didn’t want to wait around for the tourist bus to head back to town (the zoo/safari being on the outskirts) so I took the city bus straight from the animal park to the nearest MRT station (and this being Singapore, one of the nice helpers at the park told me exactly where I’d find the bus stop, what number bus to get on, and the name of the MRT station it would go to). The bus arrived five minutes after I got to the bus stop and about half an hour later I was at the MRT. A few words about the Singapore Metropolitan Rapid Transit: it’s the cleanest metro I’ve ever seen but that should go without saying since Singapore is the cleanest city in which I’ve even been. I think littering and graffiti might be capital offenses here. You could perform surgery on the MRT station floors. And here’s a brilliant thing: all other metro stations I’ve ever been in are covered with used metro tickets; people world-wide seem to have no hesitation about dropping their spent tickets on the ground as soon as they are no longer needed. Aside from the threat of death (I think) which keeps people from doing that here (okay, I’m actually thinking hard about it right now and realizing that I’ve not seen one piece of litter, no cigarette butts, no paper, no garbage of any sort on the ground since I’ve been here), the Singapore MRT has enacted this simple anti-littering/pro-recycling scheme: when you buy a single-ride ticket as opposed to a re-loadable metro card which you would keep, you automatically pay a 1 SGD deposit on the ticket. All you have to do to get that dollar back is feed your used metro ticket back into the ticket machine before exiting the station. Brilliant.

I just remembered where I was going with all that… so after I left the Night Safari, I took the bus to the MRT and the MRT to Clarke Quay, which is the Pike Street/Fisherman’s Warf/touristy area on the Singapore River in the middle of town. My goal was to eat some pepper and salt crab which I’d been told was the city’s signature dish. Turns out pepper and salt crab is ordered by the kilo and a kilo of crab seemed a little piggy for dinner, so I got pepper and salt prawns instead – they were great and the people-watching at Clarke Quay was fun, and after dinner and a long day, I came back to my hotel room to type this up.

Tomorrow I’ll have enough time for lunch here before heading to the airport to go back to [filthy, chaotic] Colombo. Not sure where I’ll spend the afternoon yet, possibly at the Raffles Hotel where the Singapore Sling was invented; the drink actually sounds both completely disgusting and kind of good to me, but drinking alone in the middle of the day might be a slippery slope. It might just be more food on a stick and a little more shopping.
Singapore Sling
1 1/2 ounce gin
1/2 ounce Cherry Heering brandy
1/4 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce Benedictine
4 ounces pineapple juice
1/2 ounce lime juice
1/3 ounce grenadine
dash bitters
Singapore Post-Script [Saturday]
I had trouble falling asleep last night, so at 5 am when I was still awake, I popped a sleeping pill and finally drifted off. I ended up getting up around noon, so instead of going into town for lunch and coming back to the hotel to get the airport shuttle, I decided to take the MRT straight to the airport and kill the couple hours I had before my flight shopping and eating there. I knew from flying in that there was practically a mall at the airport (I suspect there’s a mall at the cemetery), so I knew I’d be fine. I got there (another flawless trip on the MRT for less than a quarter of the price of the shuttle) and wandered around until I saw a drugstore and a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Nisreen had asked me to pick up something for her from a drugstore (the selection of goods in Colombo being limited) and I hadn’t done it the night before so I was glad to see one at the airport, and I really wanted a nice coffee drink, so I was in luck. I had about 25 SGDs left and I wanted to spend it all before I left so I bought Nisreen two of what she wanted and picked up some other items in order to spend the rest of my cash. What I didn’t do was check the price of an Ice-Blended Mocha before I did my shopping, and when I got to the Coffee Bean, I was exactly a dollar short. Crap. I didn’t want to take out more money from an ATM (the whole point being to get rid of money) and I really wanted my drink. So I went back to the drugstore and asked the girl behind the counter if I could return one of my items and get some cash back. She hesitated and called the manager over. They were both very polite, but it seemed apparent that a return would be a problem, but finally the manager said okay and asked for my receipt. Which I couldn’t find. Not in my pocket, not in my wallet, not in the bag with the goods. The manager very nicely said she could not do a return without the receipt. I’m usually a pretty easy-going person and I know the shop-people don't make the rules, but I was on the verge of tears. Seriously, I wanted that mocha (have you had one? They’re all chocolaty and icy with a small jolt of coffee…). The girls seemed puzzled by what the big deal was and I don’t think they quite understood what I was trying to achieve. Finally I explained that I just wanted to buy some coffee but I didn’t have enough cash so couldn’t the manager please just return one of the items that I had just bought? Please? “How much do you need?” she asked. “Just a dollar” I said, “Oh, okay” she said and looked at the other girl; they smiled at each other finally understanding what was going on: crazy-lady needed a dollar to go buy some coffee. The manager smiled at me and then opened the cash register and gave me a dollar. “Oh… no…” I said, “don’t you want to take this item back and give me a refund?” I asked. “No no,” she said, “can’t do without the receipt, you take this dollar and if it’s not enough, you come back.” Big smile. “I… are you sure?” “Yes, yes, you take it!” “Thank you!” Now I really did feel like crying, but I thanked them again and went to get my coffee. As I was standing in line at the Coffee Bean I couldn’t get over how easy it was for that girl to help me once she understood what I needed. It seemed weird that she couldn’t just do the return, but I suppose it would be easier for her to reconcile the register being a dollar short than to do a return without a paper-trail, or maybe she was going to put the dollar back out of her own wallet, I have no idea. But once she understood my dilemma, her kindness was effortless. I ordered my mocha, added two pieces of cheesecake to my order, paid with my credit card, and went back to the shop. The two girls did a double-take when I walked in. “Okay? Did you get it?” they asked. “I paid with my credit card” I said, and handed them each a little bakery box and the dollar back, “but it was so nice of you to try and help me.” “Oh no!... Thank you!… Not necessary!” they laughed and looked at each other, raising their eyebrows and looking embarrassed, as though I’d given them gold ingots instead of dessert. “Thank you” I said, “that was so kind, what you did for me, I appreciated it so much.” And over my shoulder as I walked out, “you made my day.”
Sometimes when a place has been good to you, you have to pay it back. With cheesecake. Even if it means going home with a few extra bucks in local currency.