Impressions of Singapore

My preconception of Singapore was of a very orderly, clean, rather boring place, very structured and controlled. I had heard that there were severe penalties for littering and chewing gum, and I expected to see watchful police on every corner making sure everyone behaved themselves. What I found surprised me. Getting off the plane was like being enfolded in a warm, wet blanket. Late November is in the middle of the monsoon season, and the weather is extremely hot and humid. Never have I been so thankful for air conditioning, which is in operation everywhere, including taxis and busses. Moving about the city is like alternating between a sauna and a refrigerator. Needless to say the refrigerator is the preferable state! During the four days I have been here it has rained twice, both times in the late afternoon, neither time very hard. Not at all what I expect of a monsoon. Actually since spending any time outdoors means going around soaking with sweat, the addition of rain made very little difference, so it was not much of a problem to get caught in it. People seem to use umbrellas mostly to protect against the sun rather than the rain. 

Apart from the two rainy spells the weather has been mainly bright overcast with occasional sunshine. I arrived late at night and very jetlagged (Singapore is 16 hours ahead of California) and took a cab to the hotel I had picked out pretty much at random from the list on the Singapore Tourist Board website. I was immediately struck by the excellently maintained road leading into town, The cab was clean and comfortable, and the driver very friendly. My room was very small, hardly bigger than the bed that filled it, with a small but clean bathroom attached. 

The next morning I took to the streets to find breakfast. I was in the neighborhood called Geylang, which turned out to be primarily Malayan in flavor. I found eating establishments on every corner, swarming with people, eating dishes that looked like nothing I had ever seen. This was not he somewhat antiseptic Singapore I had been expecting. There were people of every Asian ethnicity imaginable, and the smells were quite varied, but dominated by what I deduced was durian, a curious fruit that has the reputation (which I did not have the courage to test) of being quite delicious, but smells quite foul. So much so that it is illegal to take it on any form of public transportation, and there are signs in all the hotels forbidding it too. I was despairing of finding anything even remotely familiar for breakfast, when I s potted a menu featuring porridge! Finally something I recognized, and breakfast food at that. Pretty close to the oatmeal I am used to eating for breakfast, and something I have not eaten since I was a child, but I used to like it then. I was not sure of the protocol for ordering, but sat down hopefully at a table. Eventually I was able to attract the attention of someone willing to take my order, and asked for porridge. To my dismay she asked me whether I wanted fish porridge or pork porridge! By this time I was too hungry to want to resume my search, so I resignedly chose the pork, as I thought that sounded a little more breakfast-like than fish; after all, sausages are commonly made from pork, and bacon is closely related. But I found it hard to imagine what porridge with pork would be like. Well, it turns out that porridge means something quite different here. It was oatmeal-like in consistency, but made from some other, rather more slippery substance, and had lumps of meat in it. The taste was rather salty, flavored perhaps with soy sauce. It was, however, not unpleasant to eat, but definitely not my idea of a breakfast food. It did satisfy my hunger, but my stomach was evidently a little puzzled as to what to do with it, as I could feel it sitting there for some time afterward! No digestive harm ensued, but I determined to look for my breakfast in another neighborhood the following day. 

After this culinary treat I returned to my hotel to plan the rest of my day. I had heard that there was an area called Little India, so I asked directions to get there at the reception desk. They said that it was easily reached by bus, so I took to the street once more to catch one. The public transportation system in Singapore is absolutely excellent. Everywhere I wanted to go was accessible either by bus or by Metro, and both systems and point up one aspect of the country that I had not expected, which is that technology is extremely well implemented here. Everyone carries a card that is good on both systems, and almost nobody (except, of course, visitors such as myself) pays cash. On the bus the way it works is that on boarding they simply wave the card over a reader, which beeps and records where they got on. On alighting they do the same, recording where they got off. The fare is deducted from the card. There are several ways to replenish the value of the card, including putting it an ATM machine and transferring money directly from your bank account to the card. For cash paying riders you just drop the fare into a hopper, and it issues a paper ticket. I never had to wait more than five or ten minutes for a bus. The Metro is equally high tech; the same cards work for both, and here to pay cash you go to a machine and feed it money, telling it where you want to go to, and the machine issues a ticket and change. There are screens on all the platforms giving information about when the next train is coming, and where it is going. A pleasant voice announces each stop. The trains are clean and smooth running. 

Speaking of clean, the whole place is almost completely devoid of trash and graffiti. The importation and sale of chewing gum is prohibited (though you can bring in your own for personal use, but not sell it). There used to be heavy fines for littering, but it was found that many offenders could not afford to pay them, so instead litterers are sentenced to work cleaning up the parks and public places; they have to wear special uniforms with signs indicating that they are working off their offense, which is very shameful, which is a strong disincentive to breaking the law. For more serious offenses caning is used as a punishment. In spite of these restrictive laws I saw very few policemen, and people did not seem to be overly controlled. There are no laws against jaywalking, and traffic police were not very evident. Nonetheless the traffic moves pretty well, and I saw no incidents of road rage, and no accidents. Most horn blowing was legitimate warning signals, usually aimed at overadventurous pedestrians. People were generally very polite and helpful. 

Singapore is very racially diverse; you see all shades of color on the streets. English is the official language, and everyone speaks it (more or less!), but most people seem to speak other languages for theor everyday communication. The main ethnic groups seem to be Malays, Chinese and Indians. There are several neighborhoods that are predominately monoracial; Geylang, where my hotel was situated, is mostly Malay, and Little India and Chinatown are, as their names suggest, Indian and Chinese. These areas are quite visually and culturally distinct, with their own kinds of restaurants and stores, but large areas are simply mixed. Nothing I saw or read lead me to think that there is any significant degree of racial tension. Almost everyone carries a cell phone, and nobody seems to resent people talking on them. I found their constant ringing somewhat offensive to my musical sensibilities, but otherwise quite harmless. 

But to return to my wanderings: I found Little India quite charming, and found an excellent restaurant that I adopted as my main dinner destination each day, which I chose because the served Kheer, one of my favorite desserts. Breakfast I ended up eating the other days at an American style luxury hotel because I could get a reasonable imitation of an American style breakfast there. I could not bring myself to eat at Burger King, MacDonaldÕs or Starbucks, though I saw several of each. There are also several American-style shopping malls, very noisy and absolutely packed with swarms of young people; most of the girls are extremely thin and giggly with no discernable hips at all, dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts and have cell phones permanently at their ears. 

The standard of physical beauty, both male and female, is very high among the young, but people seem to age very quickly, and even the middle aged end to look quite careworn. Not to say that they seem generally unhappy, but there is a marked contrast between the seemingly carefree and exuberant youth and the much more subdued and seemingly inward-looking people of working age, with not much between. 

I also visited the Botanical Gardens, a huge and very serene park that contains a rain forest, a large orchid garden and a huge collection of ginger plants. I had no idea of the variety of gingers that exist; unfortunately the season is not right to find many of them in bloom, which is reputedly a magnificent sight, but I took many pictures of orchids of many sizes and colors. 

I should mention that Singapore Airlines is by far he best airline I have ever traveled on; the service is impeccable and the food superb. Even in tourist class you feel utterly pampered, with everything from hot towels (handed out as soon as you are settled in your seat, even before takeoff and again just before landing) to little packages containing a toothbrush and a pair of knitted socks! Each seat has its own video screen with a selection of 10 or so recent movies as well as a large variety of TV fare that you can watch at any time and start and stop at will. I was fortunate in that the flight was not by any means crowded, so I could stretch out across three seats, and felt quite luxurious. 

Being somewhat disoriented by the time change I miscalculated the number of days I was staying in Singapore, and arrived at the airport for my fight to India a day early! Since I had already checked out of my hotel I asked at the hotel reservations desk for a hotel near the airport for one night, and ended up at the Roxy Century Plaza, a fairly luxurious place but not much more per night than where I was, so for one night I have a comparatively huge room. Tomorrow I fly to India.