Sipping the Singapore Sling (a cocktail of gin, Benedictine, cherry brandy and club soda) aboard the Singapore Airlines flight, I started planning my Singapore trip. Rachit had promised that there was a lot that I had to see and experience. My mind conjured up images of high-rises and Chinese men in business suits. Would Singapore be any different from Mumbai? Perhaps. It would be much cleaner and devoid of slums, for sure. My grand-aunt had told me about the malls and Chinatown where I could buy cheap porcelain goods. I hate shopping. I wondered if there was anything else for me to do. As the plane landed at Changi International Airport (definitely the best I’ve seen thus far), I drew in my breath. This was the longest flight I had undertaken, the farthest I had gone.
At home, miles away
I had heard a lot about Changi – of what it has to offer to the millions of tourists who come here by way of shopping, entertainment and food courts. In fact, even before I had landed, I had been recommended that I set aside three hours on the day of my return for just Changi. But strangely, Changi didn’t dazzle me. Yes, I was impressed by its malls, transporters (a first for me) and escalators and I did see several people with Caucasian and Mongoloid features. But somehow, it just didn’t feel like a foreign country.
We walked outside the airport and hauled a cab – one with Incredible India advertisements all over. As we pulled out, the city reminded me of Mumbai or Kolkata – or a bit of both. As we headed downtown, Rachit pointed to the Singapore Flyer and the towering high-rises near it. “That’s the picture of Singapore you find everywhere,” he said. Oh really!
No room for us
The cab drew upto the YMCA at One, Orchard Road, one of the poshest addresses in Singapore. We thanked the cabbie and entered the swanky YMCA lobby. The receptionist looked up our booking (S$90 per room per night) and calmly told us that we could check in only at 2pm. It was 8am. We begged him for a room, but he simply said they were all occupied. Dismayed, we decided to leave our luggage there and went out looking for breakfast. I had thought that Singapore would be a lot like Mumbai. Sadly, I was mistaken. In Mumbai, you’ll manage to find food anywhere at any time of the day. In Singapore, the day starts at 11am. It’s difficult to find some place to eat before that. We found ourselves digging our teeth into a S$5.80 Subway sandwich. So much for the Singapore experience!
Singapore has a river?
I was supposed to meet Shreyasi after six years. It wasn’t like we were the best of pals in college but when you go to a foreign land, you do get super-excited when you see familiar faces. We were to meet Shreyasi at 12 noon. I had told her how we had been greeted at the YMCA. She was worried. Luckily for us, the receptionist managed to find a vacant room at 10.30 am. We finally had a roof over our heads at 11 am. I then dialled Shreyasi’s number (we had purchased a S$50 SIM card at the airport). Shreyasi asked us to meet at Riccotti, an Italian restaurant at the Singapore River. “There’s a river in Singapore that I didn’t know of?” She said, “Well, it used to be a part of the sea that had breached in here. They’ve desalinated it and now the water’s potable.” Wow! And we in Mumbai have turned Mithi into the sea!
Since we were supposedly on a budget trip, we decided to purchase an Ezy-Link card from the MRT (short for Mass Rapid Transport). The swipe card (we bought one for S$10) allows you to travel by the metro rail and buses all over Singapore. It’s a blessing for commuters as cab fares are ridiculously high. You simply swipe the card in at the station you board the train and swipe out at the station you alight. As simple as that! And if you wonder why Singaporeans are not fat, it’s because of the amount of walking and climbing (yes, there are escalators) they have to do at the MRT everyday.
Shopping in Chinatown
I thought I would have problems bargaining and communicating with the storekeepers at Chinatown. Instead, they had trouble following what we wanted. Indians love to browse through goods at a marketplace. If we spend two hours shopping, it’s more or less divided into 1.45 minutes of browsing and 15 minutes of actual time spent on purchases. We’re used to being pampered by our shopkeepers who’ll show us all their wares before getting down to the bargaining bit. They offer us tea or cold drinks, giving us time to decide on what we should buy. And when we walk off after a bargaining bid, they’ll come running after us offering the piece at our price. The Chinese are a little different. They don’t like it if you browse through the goods without actually picking up stuff. They don’t pamper you. If you bargain, they’ll offer you a lower price (“Ok, you take three for S$10) that you won’t reconsider. And if you go away, they simply will turn their backs to you and look out for the next customer. Turnover is all that counts. Who cares for customer service? What we bought were China-made bags, pouches, scarves, a Chinese jewellery box, a Chinese compass, chopsticks and tissue-box covers.
“I eat everything that moves”
It was Rachit’s idea. I would not have dreamed of munching on kebabs in Singapore but Rachit insisted we check out one of his favourite haunts – Arab Street near Sultan Mosque. And he managed to get Geo and Kedar to tag along after a round of drinks. The place: al-Majlis. We settled on the carpet and ordered a sheesha, mixed lamb and chicken kebabs, hummus and pitta bread. I was mulling over what to order when Geo turned to me and said, “Arre bindaas maar. Main hoon na. I eat everything that moves.” “Pork and beef?” “Yes.” Frog? “Have tried the frog leg soup which is a specialty in Singapore (as is the pig organ soup!) but wouldn’t recommend as there’s not much meat on it.” Gulp!
Orchids in cages
My grand-aunt had suggested that I check out the Singapore Zoo and pose with the orangutans there. Rachit didn’t like the idea of hairy primates getting anywwhere close to me. So he took me to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The green patch was a welcome sight after the malls at Orchard Road. The idea of setting up a national garden started in 1822 when Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, developed the first Botanical and Experimental Garden at Fort Canning (yes, they had one there too!) We checked out the Swan Lake where we saw two fidgety swans and something that hopefully resembled a swimming turtle. Next stop: Orchid Garden. We bought S$5 tickets each to see orchids in cages! Surely, there was no chance of them running away. We took our pictures and then headed towards the ‘rainforest’ that came really close to the ‘real thing’ except that there was no so much as a caterpillar around! “A rainforests without insects!” Then I saw the pest-control van… We moved quickly to the ginger garden where we discovered that turmeric belongs to the same family and then decided to go to the ‘Coolhouse’. I half-expected winter plants in an airconditioned greenhouse. What I found were tropical ferns, epiphytes and pitcher plants. This certainly was the best part of the trip. Like the rest, this too was a controlled environment but the huge pitchers indicated signs of insect life. Finally!
Singapore’s favourite food is omnipresent. It jostles for space between pig organ soup and frog legs at most food courts and Chinese roadside stalls. Francis Ong, one of Rachit’s friends told me, “We Singaporeans oscillate between pepper and chilli.” It was on Francis’s recommendation that the group of to-be MBA graduates from Nanyang Tech University (NTU) had gathered at Mellben Seafood, Ang Mo Kio. Kati and Francis had insisted “That’s where we get the best chilli crab in Singapore.” Rachit and I had tried out a version of soft-shelled crab at Sentosa but Rachit had told me that we’d miss the real thing. But with Francis by our side, there was no way we could have gone wrong. The crab came – all red and dunked in chilli sauce – ready to be eaten. But Alis and Rosemary decided to capture its original state before it underwent mastication in our mouths. We waited for the ‘shoot’ to end and then simply tore the crab apart – claw by claw. Nobody cared for the shell-cracker. We worked on it with our hands, incisors, molars and tongues. Francis scoffed at us when we put aside the remnants on a separate plate. “This is the way to do it,” he said, pointing at a pile of shells on the table. Other dishes on the turntable contained seaweed, cereal prawns (again a favourite), buns, pepper crab and something that resembled Chicken Manchurian. I was tempted to dig in but I decided to ask Francis what it was. “Frog.” I could see the familiar shape. Kati egged me on 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.” Cost of the dinner S$419 split up between 13 people. It makes sense to eat in large groups!
Are you Indian? You sure?
I was surprised when I was asked this question at the Singapore checkpoint on our way back from Tioman in Malaysia. I had been asked the same question at Starbucks and even at Little India (where I found Singtel pamphlets in Bangla). Later, Kedar told me, “Here, because of the large Tamil population, people in general think that Indians are dark-skinned with curly hair. They’ve been asking me the same. I’m sure they’ve never heard of Maharashtrians, much less Kokanastha Brahmins.” Some comfort!
Shorts and high-heels
I remember Almas telling me on Facebook of how women in Singapore always wear high-heels. Not only did I not believe her, but I also chose to take my kitten heels along. On my first MRT trip to Clarke Quay (pronounced Clar-key), I noticed women in black shorts, formal shirts and jackets balancing themselves on stilletoes and high pumps. Ouch! Shorts to work? Rachit said, “That’s how it is here. The more you show the better!”
The hat and the cloak!
We had to buy Rachit’s convocation garb from Serangoon Broadway. Since NTU had an exclusive tie-up with the store, the storeowner decided to capitalise on it and provided for packages. “You buy the dress, it cost you S$42. You buy package with 2 photographs for S$100, you get dress free. There were people willing to shell out S$2,000 for a large photograph and a free dress!
No history, no culture
When I looked up tourist places in Singapore, I didn’t find many that would appeal to me. The reserves are so well-maintained (devoid of creepy-crawlies) that they almost look artificial. The malls are swanky and clean, but we’ve seen enough of those brands in India too. There’s the National Museum at Orchard Road where you can learn about the struggle to have an independent Singapore and there is the St Andrews Church and thee Town Hall near the Esplanade that were constructed by the British. But that’s about it. In their bid to become modern, Singapore has had to give up its history. It’s more about commerce than culture, about technology than humanity. When I mentioned to Francis that I found Malaysians more cheerful, he said that Singaporeans may be grouchy because of the hectic pace of life in a very controlled environment. The media is controlled so expression and formation of opinions and ideas are limited, Rachit told me. There’s a ban on chewing gum and houses of foreign journalists are often bugged. The 60km X 40km island offers you limited scope for freedom but limitless possibilities of attaining wealth, with which you can buy yourself that freedom by going to USA or Canada like more rich Singaporeans. It’s the choice the locals have. As for tourists, they should be happy shopping.