Ernie goes to Singapore (Dec 2008)

Singapore’s CBD skyline, with the Esplanade peeking out from the foliage.

I didn’t spend much time planning out my itinerary for my three months abroad, but I did pencil in Singapore for the last two and a half weeks of the year. I had some family on my dad’s side in Singapore, and they very graciously showed me around town, taking me out to dinners and giving me rides to different places around the city. I  spent most of my days on my own, though, which suited me just fine. For the first few days, I repeated my Hong Kong routine – wake up, eat breakfast, walk out the door, and see where I end up. Even now, almost six years later, I can retrace my steps from my uncle’s front door to the Novena MRT stop, the main strip along Orchard Road, in and around the Central Business District, up and down Clarke Quay, and through the colourful streets of Little India and Chinatown.

The iconic Rochor Centre, a collection of housing estates slated for demolition in late 2016.

Colourful shopfronts line the narrow streets of Little India.

The Cenotaph stands in memory of the soldiers lost in World Wars I and II.

I’ve often taken my 6’3 frame for granted whenever I’ve traveled. Here in Asia, where signs warning against pickpockets and purse-snatchers are ubiquitous in almost every major city, it’s not unreasonable to prepare for the worst. In subsequent travels, I’ve spent time in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Kathmandu, Shenzhen, and a half  dozen other major Asian cities where stories of muggings and riots creep into the edges of the picture – I know of friends that have experienced it first-hand. So I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that I’ve never been pickpocketed, mugged, or assaulted – at most, I’ve been taken for a loop by a taxi driver. It doesn’t stop me from thinking about the possibilities of any of those things happening though, or of being extra aware of my surroundings whenever I’m in an unfamiliar place. I do kind of think that my height and size have worked to my advantage, along with the stony “get out of the way” face that I’ve adopted and honed to perfection in Hong Kong. If the goal is to make myself appear to be the less attractive target, it seems to be working so far. In Singapore, however, I never once felt like I needed to be aware of my surroundings – I was free to wander at my leisure, regardless of time or place.

The luxurious Fullerton Hotel in downtown Singapore.

An enormous banyan tree standing guard in front of the National Museum of Singapore.

The Masjid Malabar in the Kampong Glam district.

In my alone time, I walked and ate my way through crowded neighbourhoods, passed a rainy afternoon wandering through the excellent National Museum of Singapore, and spent a day in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. I appreciated the relaxed tempo of my travels thus far, but there would be moments throughout my time in Singapore, and in the rest of my three months abroad, where I would marvel at something – a taste, a sight, a feeling – and I’d wish that I had someone to share it with, a friend to acknowledge and validate and increase the sense of wonder and enjoyment. Fortunately, about a week into my stay in Singapore, I had a friend fly in to spend the holidays at home with her family. Nicole had grown up in Singapore, but at that time she was studying in Toronto, where we happened to play on the same ultimate team. I spent a fair amount of time with her and her twin sister, as well as the rest of her family, over the next few days, enjoying their local hospitality. On subsequent trips to Singapore, the routine was the same – they would drive me to a hawker center, sit me down at a table, disappear for five minutes, and come back with trays and trays of Singapore’s bounty.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens is the only tropical garden on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

For over a century, Fort Canning stood watch over colonial Singapore.

Wonton mee, a Singaporean adaptation of the popular Cantonese dish.

Hokkien mee, one of several varieties of fried noodle dishes in Southeast Asia.

On the night of Christmas Eve, the twins invited me down to Orchard Road. Known for being the beating heart of Singapore’s shopping and entertainment district, its glitzy malls and upscale hotels had taken a backseat, for one night at least, to dozens of street-side stages that had been set up along both sides of the tree-lined boulevard. An endless sea of Christmas shoppers and holiday revelers packed the sidewalks and streets, smiling faces lit up in shades of red, green, and purple by the thick tangles of Christmas lights draped around lamp posts and swaying palm trees. As I walked down the street, there were several stages that gave me pause – an Indonesian youth group singing doo-wop carols, a troupe of Korean primary school kids doing a choreographed dance, a Japanese church operating a photo booth – and I stopped several times to enjoy and partake in the holiday atmosphere. It was a timely distraction from the lonely weight of going through my first Christmas apart from my family, and I was grateful to find it in an unexpected place.

Korean dancers performing in the Christmas festivities along Orchard Road.

Elephants taking a morning dip at the Singapore Zoo.

An iguana sunning itself in the Reptile Garden at the Singapore Zoo.

Feeding tropical birds with the twins, Nicole and Nadine, at the Jurong Bird Park.

Arab Street, in the heart of Singapore’s Muslim community.

There would be other outings – the Jurong Bird Park, breakfast at the Singapore Zoo, an afternoon of ultimate, New Year’s Eve service at her church – but when all was said and done, Nicole was quite rightly sick of driving me around every day, instead of spending time with her family. She and her sister, Nadine, had played the part of host to a tee, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. The following year, Nicole would move back home for good after half a decade away, and I’ve had the good fortune of enjoying her and her family’s continued hospitality whenever I’ve found myself back in Singapore.

The historic shopfronts along Geylang Road, an area notorious for its night life.

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