Boston to Singapore

Singapore Travel Blog

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Let me start out by bragging that I am traveling with only a carry-on suitcase and a normal backpack.  I had bought a rolling backpack online, which I thought would be useful if I was on dirt roads or in a flooded area, but it was so big and heavy that at the last minute I switched all my things over to my tried-and-true carry-on.  It barely fit, because along with the usual travel items, I’ve also got an incredibly large first aid kit.  I’m like a traveling pharmacy.  I’ve got antibiotics and ointments and all sorts of OTC medications that my book recommended bringing, most of which I’ve never used before in my life.  Now I only need an MD so that I can figure out what to use when. All of this probably takes up a third of my bag.  My clothing and such don’t take up much space, partly because all the air is squished out, as I’ve enclosed everything in plastic bags.  It reminds me of going to Girl Scout camp, except that each day’s outfit does not have its own bag.

So, Matt and I woke up at 3 am Saturday to drive from the Cape to Logan Airport.  After a few anxious moments at the beginning of the drive when I was afraid we would run out of gas and not find any at that hour, we arrived at the airport in plenty of time.  I knew I would be traveling for the next 33 hours; having had constant back pain during the 10 hour drive from DC to Boston, I was a bit nervous about the trip, but United’s seats were just the right fit for me, and I had no problems at all.  I arrived in San Francisco about ten am local time, and had a three hour layover before the flight to Hong Kong.

Before leaving San Francisco, I had finished my plane book, About a Boy, by Nick Hornby, which I bought in a used bookstore in Cape Cod.  Whoever owned the book before me was eating some sort of reddish brown snack, and it apparently lasted them through the whole book.  Like the movie, the book was very good, and I think even if I hadn’t seen the movie first, I would have imagined Hugh Grant in the main character’s role.  It must have been written for him.

United served us breakfast on the first flight, and after finding mold on my fruit salad, I was wary about the rest of the meals they served.  On the long flight, they seemed to be confused about which meal they were serving when, and gave us strange combinations like chicken curry rice served with orange juice.  I suppose this is understandable given the 12 hour time change.  They also gave us “Chinese tea” served in Starbucks cups.

I tried not to sleep much during the flights, figuring that if I arrived in Singapore at midnight their time not having slept more than five hours in the past couple days, I would be tired enough to sleep for the night, despite it being noon where I’d come from.  This assumption turned out to be incorrect, so I might as well have slept and avoided some of the boredom.  During the few hours I did try to nap, it seemed it was never quiet, as everytime there was an announcement it was followed by a translation into Mandarin and Japanese (neither of which seem to be very consise languages), with the result that someone was almost always saying something over the PA.

We arrived at Hong Kong at 5:45 pm local time.  The stop in Hong Kong was curiously hidden on the itinerary United published, which claimed to be “1 stop” between Boston and Singapore, that stop being in San Francisco.   We got off the plane, went to a new gate, and got on a new plane with new people.  How is that not a stop?  Anyway I didn’t mind, as it gave me a chance to stretch my legs.

As we got off the plane in Hong Kong, there was a man with a lazer gun, who held the gun up to each of our foreheads and zapped us as we walked by.  There was no explanation given for this, but later I saw a sign that said “temperature check station.”  I don’t know what they do to you if you have a fever�"quarantine you until they’re sure it’s not SARS, I guess.

From Hong Kong, it was approximately four hours to Singapore.  I was standing on a moving walkway on my way to customs when I saw a girl sitting on a bench who looked just like Olive.  I didn’t think it could be her, since we hadn’t reached security yet, but then I remembered that Olive works in the Singaporean airport, so of course it was her.  It’s a good thing I saw her, because she didn’t seem to be looking for me.  We went straight out to catch a cab to Erik’s (her boyfriend) place.  Once there, they went to bed, but like I said, my plan to sleep didn’t work very well.  I maybe caught an hour of light sleep and finally gave up around 6:30 am.

Olive left for work early Monday morning, so I headed out with Erik, who works downtown at a small company that makes films and documentaries.  Clean, cheap, and fast buses are constantly running from various points of the island to downtown, so we took one of those.  As we rode along, I realized that I’d had a completely mistaken idea of Singapore (this is partly Olive’s fault).  I was anticipating a super-urban environment on a tiny island with coast-to-coast skyscrapers.  Instead, most of Singapore’s buildings are only a couple stories tall, green space is abundant, and it probably takes an hour to drive from one side of the island to the other.  Many of the streets outside of the downtown area are lined with palm trees or rain trees (The rain trees were beautiful.  I’m not sure how to describe them, but maybe I don’t have to: they’re what you picture when you think of an Asian tree.) There is a section downtown with skyscrapers, but it’s probably equivalent in size to the downtown area of a mid-sized US city, like Baltimore.

Erik asked if I minded spicy food for breakfast, and I said I would love it.  I’m from New Mexico, after all!  So we went to a Malay café across from his office, where we both had bowls of rice noodles with tofu and hard boiled egg in a spicy chili broth.  I also had some excellent frothy ginger tea.  From there, Erik went to work, and I walked a few blocks to Singapore’s Chinatown.

Singapore was settled mostly by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.  Today, the ethnic Chinese account for about 75 percent of Singapore’s population.  The other main ethnic groups are the Malays and the Indians.  Many of Singapore’s residents today speak Chinese dialects, and most also speak a dialect of English called “Singlish.”  Mostly I heard Chinese (I think), and the Singlish I did hear I found difficult to understand.  Nobody there talks like Olive (actually even Olive’s family doesn’t talk like Olive.)  All the signs are in normal English, and some are also in Mandarin.  The government is pushing its citizens in two linguistic directions: towards both Mandarin (slogan “Use it or lose it”) and more standard English (slogan “Speak well.”)

In Chinatown, merchants in stores and in sidewalk booths sell everything under the sun, Chinese and not.  There are many traditional Chinese medicine stores, selling items like dried seahorses, and many more things I couldn’t identify.  There were a lot of tourists in Chinatown, of course, but surprisingly there were many locals, too.  At the hawkers market where I bought lunch (watermelon and tea), I didn’t see any other Westerners.

I went to the Chinatown Heritage Center and took a tour with a Malay guide.  The tour covered mostly the early period of Chinese immigration to Singapore, when people were desperate to escape the poverty and political situation of imperial China.  After risking beheading to leave China, immigrants were crammed underneath ship decks for weeks or months, depending on the weather, and were thrown overboard at the first sign of seasickness.  When they reached Singapore, it was not uncommon for 5 or 10 people to live together in a 10 x 10 room with no ventilation.  Generally in America we only hear about what immigrants endure to reach America, and you sort of forget that the dream of every immigrant is not, in fact, the American one.

After lunch I visited the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore.  There were a lot of areas off limits to tourists, so I didn’t spend much time there.  I then walked over the river (they call it a river, but it’s unclear whether it actually flows anywhere) and took a picture of the Merlion, a huge statue/fountain of a half-fish, half-lion that was built in the 1960s for the tourists to serve as Singapore’s symbol.  I’m not sure what they were thinking.

I then got on the subway, because Erik had recommended taking a ride on the Red Line to see some of the outlying areas of town.  Singapore’s subway trains are sleek and fast.  And clean.  They make DC’s metro system, which is said to be the nicest in the US, look quite shabby.  You could say the same about Singapore’s airport and whatever our nicest airport is supposed to be.  “We try,” says Olive.

The main reason for taking the Red Line, which travels mostly above ground, was to see the complexes of government-built apartments, which house about 80 percent of Singapore’s residents.  There are hundreds (thousands?) of these complexes, each a set of ten or so identical high-rise buildings, clustered here and there, but mostly around the subway stations.  While all the buildings in one set look alike, no two complexes are the same.  These clusters of buildings, with gardens and parks between them, go on for miles.  Sprinkled here and there are huge shopping centers.  That’s about all there was to see.  The woman sitting next to me was convinced I was on the wrong train.  “No, this train just goes to the residential estates,” she said.  You could say that if you’ve seen one high-rise, you’ve seen ‘em all, but you don’t get the effect until you’ve seen how many of them there are.

Like I said, there didn’t seem to be much else out there, and not many people in Singapore own cars, so I wonder what people out there do when they’re not downtown.  Most people don’t own cars because the government charges a huge amount (like $30,000) to register a car, and the certificate is only good for a few years.  I noticed that there weren’t many older cars on the roads, and Erik explained that only the working cars like taxis are allowed to get old.  In addition, cars have a pay a toll to drive downtown, which is another disincentive to drive.  Because of this, traffic is never bad, and the air is fairly clean, except for what wafts down from the rest of the continent.

After my subway ride, I walked around some more by the river.  It was hot, and I was thirsty, so I bought some plum water.  The ingredients read, “water, sugar, plum juice,” but there was obviously a large amount of salt added as well, which made it really nasty.  I told Erik about it later, and he said they always use salted plums in juice, for reasons neither of us understands.

After wandering around sort of lost for a while, I finally made it to the Raffles Hotel, named after British colonialist Sir Thomas Raffles.  The hotel is a beautifully ornate colonial-style building, which takes up an entire large block.  I walked around the gardens, but I did not order the famous Singapore Sling, which was invented there.  I was feeling fortunate to still be functioning after so little sleep, and I was not about to push my luck.  I’ll have to come back for one when I’m in Singapore again at the end of my trip.

By this time, I was exhausted and feeling much better about my propects for sleep that night.  I managed to make it back to Erik’s office, and from there we went for dinner at a Chinese place.  Erik eats out all the time, because there’s so much good food around, and it’s as cheap as cooking yourself.  We had a noodle dish, some Chinese “pizza” (no cheese), and something called “soup dumplings.”  You might think from the name that the dumplings come in soup, but actually, the soup comes in the dumplings, which makes them a real challenge for a foreigner, because you don’t want to reveal your ineptness with chopsticks by puncturing the dumplings and leaking the soup out.  We were seated at a table with a chatty older couple who spoke limited English.  They wanted to know if Erik and I were “lovers.”  We explained I was a friend of Erik’s “girlfriend,” but that term didn’t seem to make as much sense to them.

On the way back, we passed several fruit stands, all of which advertised “durians.”  Let me go back a bit: on the subway, there were signs prohibiting the usual things, such as food, drink, and loud music.  Also on the list were “durians,” with a picture of a spiky ball.  Is that a type of weapon, I wondered?  But as we were walking back, Erik explained that durians were a type of fruit, and that the reason they were prohibited on the subway (and on buses, and in cabs) is that they have such a strong odor.  It is durian season in Singapore, and Erik said that I had to try one, even though they are generally an acquired taste.  We bought some already been removed from its spiky cover, and Erik negotiated a good deal on it because it was sweet durian, which is not the preferred type.  A sweet durian to a durian connoisseur is like coffee with cream and sugar to a coffee connoisseur, but as with coffee, the sugar in sweet durians makes them a bit more palatable for a newcomer.

The meat the durian surrounds its seed, and is contained by a tougher outside layer.  The most surprising part of the durian was its texture: it was like pudding.  The taste also was similar to vanilla pudding, but with a strange twist that I can’t compare to anything else.  It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t something I’d probably eat again either.  Especially because after the first seed, my mouth began to itch a lot.  I told Erik I was probably allergic to it, as I am to cantaloupe and certain other fruits, but I suspect he thought that I was using it as an excuse not to eat the rest of my durian.

Olive returned to the apartment shortly after we did (she had been working late for a conference being held the next day), and we all went to bed.  This time I slept much better, and in the morning I left for the airport to fly to Bangkok.

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photo by: easyjobrob