When worlds collide

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Asia » Singapore
December 31st 2011
Published: January 16th 2012
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The sun smiles down on me and pierces through my sunglasses as I peer up accusingly looking for the source of all the heat.My jeans are soaked, I am sweating from parts of my body I never knew could produce salty beads, but under the circumstances we are close to the equator and I am inappropriately dressed. I cannot blame the sun. I’d moan more if it was raining. I hate rain.

The streets are not crowded with excited faces, there are few shops. I compare Singapore to London and cannot understand from all that I have heard, that the streets should be so deserted on New Year’s Eve. We arrive at Orchard road advertised as the great shopping district and again it is far from what I expected. I imagined great tall building’s grotesquely filled with merchandise we must buy to make us feel complete. It is not until we bore of the tall skyscrapers and head for the underground to hide from the sun that we find life. Like an ant’s nest buried deep beneath the ground women run in and out of western branded shops arms crammed with bags, men wait outside these covert underground shops looking longingly in the direction of home/pub. The network of artificial streets coil their way around leading you deeper to the heart of the mall. Escape feels impossible. Considering the heat upwards in the real world it’s not surprising Singapore has burrowed deep in order to avoid it. AC intermittently blasts in your face cooling hot skin momentarily until it swings fanning empty space. There is method in this madness after all as the streets start to make sense and this mess reveals order and structure. I like order and structure, it makes me feel safe. It’s sensible, usually.

Riding the monorails is terribly exciting. You see so much high up above to see unlike London where all is concealed underground. This is orderly and makes sense but it’s kind of cool to ride elevated in the sky and over-see the insect like people below going about their day. It’s a novelty. Mosques, Hindu temples, shrines, parks, sky scrapers, tower blocks whizz past us. The stations are held together with neat structure making it easy for the foreigner to get around without getting lost. There are even instructions on how to stand at the station, how to enter the train and how to exit the train. As we wait for out train to pull in to the station we watch a “what to do if there is a terrorist attack” video which was highly unnerving. Still the ride was smooth. The cabs are spotless, but I guess this is because they will probably chop your head off if you eat, something which is clearly unacceptable. I won’t attempt to pick my nose then. Singapore is a country with rules. No chewing gum, no spitting, no jay-walking, no food, no drink. In Cambodia I remember seeing signs at the swimming pool and the mall with a picture of a hand grenade and a cross through it indicating they are not welcome inside. When it comes to Asia you have to stop applying western logic as it will never fit. The East has its own ludicrous ways and you either accept them or you leave.

Still Singapore gets thumbs up from me. It’s clean, no that’s not the right word; it’s pristine. I don’t see any dirt, rubbish, litter or people sleeping rough. There is no chewing gum amalgamating with the concrete pathways, windows are streak-free and signs all point in the right direction. There is no room for mishap either as the rules are clear for all to see. A city full of expectations and it’s mostly lived up to by its inhabitants and visitors. Yep, this is good.

We head to the marina to settle down for New Years celebrations. Again it’s not as busy as one might expect. In Europe everyone is out at seven ready and waiting in position, ready to fight tooth and nail for the best viewing spots. We wander the marina, and twice more aimlessly regarding the spectacular towering buildings which close in on us. The colours of the wheel, the mall, the eateries and the artwork encasing the palatial grounds light up the sky and reflections dance in the water. Powerful light beams streak the sky and glide gracefully over the stars. We take a seat in Starbucks and crane our necks up to the sky and watch in silence as the luminosity radiates outwards reaching everyone drawing us in for the imminent festivities.

In search for a better view we find an empty quiet spot and sit with two cans of Tiger beer. We chat, drink and wait as the sky darkens bringing out the splashes of colour painting our surroundings. Midnight nears and so do the crowds who suddenly find spots which never existed and plonk themselves down forcing early risers to move irately. Carl and I play ignoramus and irritatingly lie down, move our legs, our bags anything to keep our space. We were here first after all and if I have learnt anything about Asian culture, it doesn’t matter if you have waited in line all day, if someone can find a way to push in they will and they do it brazenly like it’s no problem. Strange concept since we are in Singapore and everyone regards rules with such politeness, but it still happens. We fought for our front row seats of the fireworks and we kept them. I wanted to get good photos of the fireworks which were wonderful. Sadly they did not come out as desired as I had a mother attempting to push her son in front of me. Remember, Carl and I were here first, I aint giving up this space for no man, or child. The mother looks at me like I am some evil witch. But I stare just as hard back. My face clearly says “Don’t push your luck lady, your son is not getting an inch closer to that rail and if you knock my camera again, I’ll knock you back”. Carl revisits a time when we were at London zoo and went to see the penguins being fed. I was so excited and made him wait ages by the penguin wall so I could see them and take photos. Regardless of the time I spent there (we were the first ones too) I had a women physically push me out of the way so her son could get to the front claiming he was smaller than me and I was an adult. Shocked I stood stunned and motionless allowing this woman to push me further back. I was livid. I paid full entrance for this blasted zoo, the kid paid half. I am older yes but that means I have less chance of seeing this again, the kid can come back when it’s an adult. I never did get to see them being fed as the mother felt she should stand with her son thus rendering photo opportunity wasted. Aside from the scuffle with a mother, the fireworks were lovely. Not as incredible as London and shockingly no-where near as good as the firework display on the Kings fathers birthday in Cambodia earlier in the year. No wonder why there are so many people in poverty there still...

In the Bible exodus describes how the Israelites departed en mass through the parting seas and onwards to the holy land. The thousands of slaves I imagined would have been a scene much of what we saw after the last firework. The roads so packed we could not move. We turned against the tide and walked the arduous walk to another station further out of the way to avoid the masses. On other new year’s celebrations I have witnessed drunkenness, sillyness, abuse, fights and of course joy from those celebrating. We watched as young families carried tired infants in their arms, elderly couples gently strolled arm in arm and the young laughed as each group made their way home. I saw so violence, no anger, no drunken students. Just consideration from one to another as each made their way home in peace. It was a beautiful sight to behold. At two in the morning I fall into bed and pull the sheets over my head, I am exhausted.

The next day is just as hot as the last, but I am armed with camera and lenses ready to feast upon the delights Singapore has in store for me. It doesn’t disappoint. We are greeted in China town to an assault on our senses; vibrant scarlet lanterns suspend overhead in neat arrangements, vivacious dragons adorn shop fronts; a huge scaly dragon winds its way along the island of the busy road climbing high over the bridges before suddenly curving its neck, it’s giant head cranes fiercely at pedestrians making their way to work; sweet scents hang in the air setting stomachs rumbling; all this accompanied with high pitched wailings to the beat of drums. The food stalls are crammed with an assortment of delicacies, the fruit tempts us but it’s the sweet cherries which end up in my belly. Pricey but mouth wateringly worth it.

We wander the streets necks craned in the sky; there is so much to see above as well as at street level. The facade of the shop fronts are delicately intricate and European almost transporting us to another place outside of Asia. Colour is splashed in every nook and cranny as if it were there always. Just at the end of China town we stumble upon a Hindu temple full of women dressed in vivid saris queuing inside the temple complex. I watch them through the gate and they watch me back. I reluctantly leave my camera hanging by my side; when it comes to religious worship I find it hard to photograph such a personal and private affair and I certainly don’t want to offend or intrude especially under such close supervision. What I saw in those moments will just have to be relived in my memory. As we walk further on we find the entrance but I am inappropriately dressed and again feel it is wrong to barge my way in to religious worship. So I watch and marvel at the beauty of the temple and its believers. The wall outside is heavily lined with their shoes revealing just how powerful this little temple is.

I previously wrote about Jahor Bhayru and the close proximity in which religious groups reside and I realise Singapore is no different. No sooner had we passed China Town (which is the best china town I have ever seen) and the Hindu Mandir we find a Chinese Buddhist temple. The veranda is decorated in long lines of beautiful saffron lanterns which sway gently in the wind. The interior is richly decorated in royal reds and gold making one feel surrounded in wealth and luxury. Although a Chinese Buddhist temple there is an obvious hint of Hinduism seeping through as some of the more popular Gods are depicted in the sculptures and wall hangings. Men and women fall on to their knees, bend their torso forwards until their forehead touches the ground and remain motionless whilst others place the palms of their hands together and shake them three times before moving on. I creep through to the next room as I spy a ceremony taking place and watch unobserved as monks bless the congregation.

Singapore is pricey and it comes as a shock. Accommodation and food are western in cost and it takes a lot of searching for the cheaper options. We find a few food stalls outside the China Town station and without truly knowing what it is we have just purchased we settle at an empty table and begin to test each item. I have no idea what it was I ate so am unable to reveal what one I liked and what one I did not but I liked one and not the other. Still I tried new things, something I tend to be more reserved about when it comes to food.

Later that same day we drop in on Little India and again I am astounded at the beauty of culture brought to a country. It is incredible to see what one can achieve when precious traditions are embraced rather than excluded. I know those of the same nationalities, religion and colour tend to move to the same places within a country which can cause conflict to those on the outside or who were “there first” but find themselves being alienated from the new communities as they can no longer relate to the new traditions, for example Brixton in the UK is hugely overlooked and many judgements of the town are underpinned by those with racist tendencies. However, it is a fraction of London rich with culture, religion and traditions which encourage others to be a part of such a dynamic area. Of course it’s not all roses, there is relative and absolute poverty simmering away under the surface, but in my travels I have found such richness of a country is made from all walks of life. Little India is no exception; here we see poverty but we also glimpse a wealth of colour through spirituality, the heavy footfall of worshipers and the vibrantly decorated shrine devoted to Kali the Goddess of destruction and known to some Hindus as the representative of death. If you type Kali in to google you’ll get a gruesome image of a female with medusa like hair, skulls draped around her neck holding decapitated heads in her hands usually dancing around headless bodies and fire. She is a rare goddess to worship due to the deathly relation so I am surprised to learn that there are three such dedicated temples in Singapore.

You will like Singapore, it’s hard not to; after all what’s not to like? Its clean, the people are lovely, the food is good, it’s affluent in culture and there is so much to see and do. There is only one gripe and that is the cost of everything being a tad on the expensive side. Seeing my money unable to stretch gives me the sweats especially when I spend 70p on a beer in Vietnam only to find it is £4 here. Even if all you do here is eat, sleep and take in the sights you will fill many wonderful days. I was sad to leave Singapore so soon after having arrived and felt like I didn’t get to see enough. Ah well, I’ll just have to come back sometime.....

Additional photos below
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17th January 2012

Nice blog...really going for it. A number of the pics were not visible to me...might need to republish.
17th January 2012

Thank you Ill take a look at the blog and repost. So annoying!

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