Singapore (Part 1) : A Little Bit of Green Besides the Urban Jungle
Singapore Travel Blog› entry 266 of 268 › view all entries
'If you see any suspicious looking person please tell our staff or press the emergency button to the side of the doors'. I read the sign as I lean into my sweaty t-shirt that rubs against my sweaty backpack as I stand and glide into the city's heart on the night's last MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) train from Changi airport to China Town. The air conditioning chills my dampness and fatigue. I stand and stare at the suspicious looking person reflected back at me, the trains windows having been turned to mirrors by night and strip light. He sports a rash of ginger stubble, bags under his eyes, is wearing a dirty army-style cap with three stars stuck upon it, a cheap stretched Indian made 'Buddha' t-shirt, shoes with holes in, and mud-spattered, ink stained trousers.
Further down the carriage a slender girl stands listening to her iPod looking as cool, sleek and artfully designed as the thing itself. Her hair a sculpture of fine black needle icicles. Cutting edge chic. Punk elegance. Her blue stone-washed jeans are artfully threadbare. Ripped and torn with precision and care. She wears a thin strap white tee that declares her in bold black text to be 'YOUNG RICH SEXY & FREE'. The suspicious looking man in the mirror and I agree we are but one of these things right now (and I'll give you a clue - it ain't Sexy) as the train glides deeper into the glowing hive of lights that are the visible constellations of Singapore after dark.
It's late. After midnight. I'm hungry. I've hefted my heavy soul and heavier backpack up and down the length of Maxwell Road three times, obeying the many pedestrian crossing lights and signs all the way trying to find my hostel. Having found it I wake up and am greeted by 'Aunty' Iunie the mothering, friendly though also terminally grumpy patroness of the Fernloft City hostel, China Town. I don't begrudge her her gripes. She chooses to sleep overnight in the dorm with the guests rather than in her own home?! Yeah, not much sleep. She points out the shower but I need post-midnight food (doesn't that turn me into a Gremlin?!) so regardless of my appearance turn back into the night in search of it.
So that's where we'll start.
I sit over my steaming bowl of fish congee in the first of the many hangar-sized food court emporiums that I will frequent in the coming days. I am dazed by fatigue and dizzied by the vast array of food stuffs on offer from the tens upon tens of cuisine kiosks that are crammed into these brightly lit communal nosh-halls with their neon numbered and illustrated menus.
I start a conversation with my table-mate, a young Singaporean called Peter, and given that I will soon come to the conclusion that there are approximately 3 eating establishments per head of the population in Singapore [ According to the Unofficial and Exaggerating Department for Statistical Concoction in my Head ] it comes as no surprise that he's a chef by profession and states 'FOOD!' as his number one recommendation to foreigners visiting his country for the first time when I make this predictable enquiry. We turn out to be of almost of identical age and he calculates that we are both horses according to the Chinese Zodiacal calendar.
Tomorrow's my first day in Singapore. The nation that is a city that is an island that is a shopping mal that is a melting pot - or perhaps rather a small gigantic kitchen of humanity. Perhaps. That bowl of congee I just ate was the size of a small swimming pool! I finally shower nearly 24 hours of international travel (Bukit Tinggi to Padang to Jakarta to Singapore) off my 'skinny horse' frame and sleep as well as is possible in the sub-zero temperature A/C refrigerator dormitory whilst 'Aunty' Iunie attempts the same with an extra portable fan throwing arctic chill full blast along her cotton sheet shrouded form for good measure.
Singapore is probably both the best and the worst place in the world for me to be right now. The best because after twenty one months solid budget backpacking and three solid weeks in the Sumatran jungles and mountains there's a lot to be said for suddenly finding yourself in one of the world's cleanest, most modern, efficient and orderly cities. 'The worst?' you ask. Well precisely because of those three weeks in the Sumatran wilds, to suddenly turn up in one of the world's cleanest, most modern, efficient and orderly cities can leave you looking and feeling a little bit like a fish out of water. The Sumatran jungle mud acquired from my Bukit Tinggi trek to find the Rafflesia flower (named after the Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who claimed its 'discovery' around the time he claimed Singapore for the British East India Company and founded its modern era) still besmears me to the shins.
Luckily for me though I will not be alone in Singapore! For courtesy of the wonderful medium of Travbuddy I will have fine fellow Hadi [ Hadi25 ]acting as my host, friend and guide for two days in his city. Following a personal epiphany Hadi, a qualified civil engineer currently earning his bread in an accountancy firm figured it was time to break out of his air-conditioned cage from time to time and start seeing the world. This led to an inaugural trip to Indonesia earlier this year (one repeated a number of times since) and, encouraged by the inspirational realm and members of Travbuddy, Hadi's passport's been working overtime ever since.
The standard potted narrative of modern Singapore, accurate or not, has Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and his successors shipping in under the British flag, 'taming' a bug-infested tropical jungle quagmire island-principality, realising and releasing its potential by putting up lots of nice buildings and making it one of the foremost trading ports in Southeast Asia and the world (as it remains today) and therein laying the foundations for the economic 'miracle' that is, post 1963-65, the fully resplendent and independent Republic of Singapore here and now.
The Kranji nature area or Lin Khu Cheng Agro-technology Park, perches on the northern coastal shoulder of Singapore island, besides the Johon Strait that separates Singapore from clearly and closely visible Malaysia. It represents an ongoing commercial, environmental and educational project to preserve and develop small-scale sustainable horticulture and agriculture in a society where engagement with such industries or environs has become all but extinct. High-tech fish, fruit, flower and vegetable farms are carefully cultivated here. Innovations such as the Hay Dairies goat farm (tag line 'The Natural Choice') invite visitors, predominantly families and school groups, to come and see real live goats stare, slumber and chew away in an agro-commercial environment and purchase and drink their milky products from the little store on site.
It all sounds a little forced and somewhat like an exhibition agricultural 'zoo' for livelihoods and livestock no longer directly relevant to daily Singaporean life experience. And there's an undeniable truth in this. Singapore is practically a 100% food import economy after all. But it is performing a vital function in the educative role of reminding some kids of the connection between what they eat and where it comes from. The journey from fish or feather to fillet. The passage from a pig to pork to your sandwich or soup. Hell, if like most majority Chinese ethnicity cultures in the world (and Singapore is 75% so) you are going to eat the world entire with impunity you might spare the occasional thought for the connection between Menu, Mouth and Mother Nature.
Hadi explains that he considers himself part of the final generation in Singapore to have observed a now lost 'part natural landscape'. To have seen a Singapore where the grey and electric-lit had not entirely conquered the green and star-shone. When a true contrast of the natural and The New still existed, and to have witnessed the final evaporation of the country's larger natural spaces and resources.
Hadi takes me to and treats me to a fine organic foods lunch at the Poison Ivy restaurant within the Kranji park.
But in the end there’s no getting away from it here. The City. The skyline. The colours, shapes, compositions and clamour of modernity. And to be honest, though Hadi has quite correctly clocked me as more a man of nature living than city-slicking, cities are intense expressions of human aspiration and collective achievements (and failures) and so are unavoidable, necessary and often very exciting places to be as a traveler and an observer of people. And I need this particular city break. I end the day as this entry began, gliding back into the city on the MRT train. A suspicious looking, muddy individual. But now one with a friend. As we head on in and the housing gets higher a fabulous sunset performs for the last audience of the day, Hadi and myself included.
Back in my sub-zero dormitory at Fernloft, everything seems to have been rearranged. A new confusion of beds, bags and cupboards. A consequence of staying with one's 'Aunty' I suppose. A need to readjust her home; her living space from time to time. I look to my former bunk and find a computer printed slip of paper upon the pillow : 'Stephen you bed on the lower bunk next to me.' My-my, now that is hospitable of you 'Aunty' ! Good night folks ;)
* I've since checked and actually Chef Peter's zodiac was ever so slightly askew.