Singapore

*When I started writing this I realized I have too many pictures to tell the story, so please click here for the complete gallery*

I had heard of something called ‘cultural shock’ that is meant to take people off their tracks and leave them rather disoriented when arriving at a complete different environment. No such feeling came to us as we entered Indonesia. Partially as I come from a third world country myself and have spent time in slums and forgotten places. Besides, we were prepared for it.

No one had prepared me for Singapore though. I actually had some friends that had advised me to skip it, regarding it as just another ‘big city’. Now, after 100 days in Indonesia, it was THE city and even upon arrival the differences where so marked that we were dazed and confused. The airport was enormous, shiny and spotless. All the signs where in English and people were moving about in a hurry. We went through immigrations and customs barely stopping to say Hi, and unable to draw a smile from the officials (which I always take upon myself to do). The lady at the info centre almost barked a Tim when he was approaching with his trolley to ask a transport related query, claiming “this is not a place to park your trolley!”. The toilets were fully automatic, and on your way out was a screen asking you to rate the place. At the top floor they had an art installation featuring metal drops that danced up and down providing a beautiful spectacle. We had time to kill so we rode the airport train to the next terminal and walked around with eyes wide open. I saw a giant durian and had to get a picture with/on it.

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Getting into the LRT, after buying our tickets from a machine was again a crazy experience. There were women wearing mini skirts; couples kissing in public; girls with bright dyed hair; the train speakers sounded loud and clear, advising what station you were at and which was next; most people were absorbed into their smart phones, either playing silly games or chatting. All in all, everything around us was sooo different from the country we had just left that morning that we were a mixture of excitement and uncertainty. We got off the train and were meant to take a bus to get to our destination. I approached the information counter to ask what side of the road I had to take the bus from, and a grumpy lady snapped at me: follow the signs to bus stop. We got above ground and realized we were at a huge bus station, and just had to find the number and stand behind a line of people already orderly waiting for the transport. We asked the gentleman in front of us if we needed a card or could pay the driver, and he advised we could do the latter but needed exact change. He offered us some coins in case we did not have enough, but the subway machine had spat some so we were OK. As we got on the  bus, he talked to the driver for us, and stood there holding some coins out in case we needed them. It was wonderful to meet the first friendly person in Singapore, as we were starting to feel a bit let down by our previous exchanges with locals..

Finding a couch to sleep in Singapore was the hardest I have experienced in all my years in CS. It is a very popular and expensive destination, and not that many hosts in offer, which means locals get bombarded with requests, and most already had surfers or were out of town. Since our access to the web in Medan was intermittent, it wasn’t until two days before arriving that we spent the whole day looking at profiles and sending requests to people. On a streak of luck, we received two YES withing an hour from two people whose bio we had absolutely loved. We therefore decided to stay two days with the one that agreed to host us first, and then move on to the next home for another few days.

We had agreed to meet Jake, a local Singapore/Chinese guy at 11pm. We arrived around 10pm, and decided to go get some dinner beforehand. We found a Chinese restaurant close to our rendezvous point and had a delicious shared meal, though my stomach was still pretty far from happy. We then returned to the agreed corner, and Jake turned up very punctually. I immediately liked him, though I was rather distracted for the first hour or so by his looks. I had not judged from his profile picture how hot he was, so it threw me a bit off balance and made me feel like a teenager… He had a beautiful loft (aka pirate den) where he was currently not living, but was using to host couchsurfers instead. There was already a French/Canadian guy staying there, who was also quite cool, and had been backpacking for more than half a year, and therefore had his fair amount of stories to share. Jake had a few beers in the fridge that he did not actually like, so I was happy to relieve him of two, tasting good beer after four months of barely drinking at all, or drinking horrendous Bintang (Indonesian watery/piss tasting beer). It was the middle of the week and Jake had to work the next day, so he left us around 1am, after walking with us to a nearby mall where we could find a supermarket and pointing out a hawker around the corner where we could find some good, cheap food.

The next morning I woke up and had to run to the toilet to throw up. My body was reminding me that it was not yet recovered and I had to pace myself. I felt utterly disappointed by this, given that Singapore is famous for having amazing food from all over the world. Our plan for the day was to walk about 5km until we got to the Millenium Tower, to pick a package Josie (Tim’s mum) had sent us. We made our way though some clean, well signalized streets until we reached the river. During the first part, we saw some colonial style buildings and some bookshelves with free books, mostly around Buddhism. We picked up a small book with beautiful quotes.

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We then followed a series of parks along the shore. At one point we found an association that had created ‘gardens by the water’ and spent some time getting pictures with their art installations. We continued on our path, below a motorway until we could devise the pyramid top of the desired tower to our right. We got stuck behind a new structure that was being built as seating for the upcoming formula 1 race, unable to make the turn we needed to get to our destination. We ended up behind the famous Ferris wheel, and decided to check it out. The price was way beyond our budget, but the structure itself very beautiful and worth visiting.

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From there to the sought building was only a short stroll. The building is right next to a mall that has a series of strange pyramid shaped roof peaks, painted with an optical illusion that creates a stunning effect of them being huge, when they aren’t. We shared a pizza and then went up to the 43rd floor to pick up the package. We were greeted by a smiling polite receptionist, who handed over the parcel, and we asked her to sit for a minute while we recovered our breath and opened the envelope. I was immediately drawn to the floor to a ceiling window facing the city. The fabulous view almost brought tears to my eyes and I felt awestruck.

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By then it was already 2pm and the heat had taken its toll on us. I encouraged Tim to keep walking further but he prompted me to return to Jake’s place to relax for a while, and head out again later on towards Little India. We walked back from Marina Bay at a slow pace, as my energy level was quickly plummeting. Nonetheless we eventually made it back home, to AC and a wonderful shower. After chatting to our French/Canadian friend for a while, we set back out into the streets with renewed energy. We found Little India by following some Indian people we found in the streets, and it was a very lively place. The whole city in general seems to transform at night time. During the day, people walk around in a hurry with grumpy faces. At night everyone relaxes and has fun with their friends. It was a wonderful change in the environment. We walked around with eyes wide open, absorbing all the noise and ebullience of the crowds that surrounded us. We found a vegetarian restaurant and went in. To my dismay, I had no appetite whatsoever, so I just stared at Tim’s food, that I would normally have  loved to eat, but could barely bring myself to try a tiny bit of each curry. We left the place and stood in the street for a while looking at the bright colourful signs and enjoying some people watching. Eventually we moved on to keep exploring, and stumbled upon a Chinese street show on the fringe of Little India. A middle aged woman was singing some songs in Mandarin, and a big audience was cheering her on. At last we decided to return through yet another little street to see a little bit more of night life. We found a mall that had some pictures you could poke your face through, and of course we stopped to take some silly pics. Jake came to see us all later that night, and stayed chatting until well past midnight.

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The plan for the following day was to visit the Botanical Gardens. These are enormous (one of the biggest in SE), and you would need a few days to actually explore all of them. I still had no appetite, so I had not eaten anything other than 2 oat cookies, yet we walked another 5km or so to get there, so I was feeling quite drained by the time we made it. On the way we deviated to visit a beautiful Buddhist temple but we were not wearing appropriate clothes to go in. We also stopped at a few other places, including a pretty park and a small mall to cool down in their AC and find a funny sign in the toilets…

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Once at the BG, we had a look through the so called ‘healing gardens’ featuring all sorts of medicinal plants from all over the world. We then kept on walking, and found a quiet spot between some trees where some birds were chirping around and some monitor lizards were searching for bugs. I laid down on a bench and fell asleep quickly. I must have dozed off for over an hour until I finally woke up to find Tim sitting in the bench next to me. I had tried to motivate him to keep going while I slept, but he was content to watch over me and look at the wild life around. We both realized I was in no condition to keep exploring for much longer, so we started slowly heading towards the LRT station in the park. Before we got there we had a quick diversion to explore the North East part of the park, including a nice lake they dug up. I also took the time to read about the history of the place, how it was a pillar in terms of creating this ‘Garden City’ and its role fomenting rubber plantations around the area.

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We made it back in the afternoon and got ready to move out of Jake’s and into our new temp home. Tim went out to get some dinner for himself while I stayed cleaning and tidying up the place, so that the next surfers could also take advantage of this beautiful bachelors den. To save 3SG$, we walked almost 2km with our packs so that we could take another bus towards our destination. As soon as we hopped on, two lovely Singaporean ladies gave us their seats, and were amazed on how I was carrying such a heavy backpack. Once I told the little old lady sitting next to me how far we had walked, she gave me a surprised look and advised me to stop carrying the pack to prevent my knees getting injured. It was funny and heart-warming at the same time.

Around 10 pm we arrived at our destination. Due to a confusion on my Google’s part, we ended up at the wrong tower, but we quickly realized our mistake and walked a few metres to the right one. We were welcomed by Val, Hannah and all the other flatmates with big smiles and a cosy apartment. When we originally found their CS profile, Tim freaked out and told me he had found the Philippine version of us. And right he was, we had a lot of tastes and interests in common and immediately felt like we had known these people for a long time. All the roomies were from the same nationality and took us in straight away. That night we stayed up talking and laughing until very late. One of the guys heard of my stomach trouble and offered carbon tablets. Little did I know, this archaic medicine would end up curing me at last.

I woke up to the smell of food the next morning. I got out of bed and there were at least three people busy in the kitchen. They were preparing chicken adobo, along with a few other dishes. I was still not very hungry at all, but I managed to try a bit of everything and it was utterly delicious. After lunch, we left for  the Southern Ridges walk (10km). This is an amazing stroll through a few parks and bridges that starts at the water, with amazing views of the port, and continues along a plant nursery and a wavy bridge of unique architecture. Later on it continues through some green houses, and onto another metal bridge, that goes over a motorway and into a piece of native forest where monkeys lure. Many signs warn you against feeding them and threaten you with fines.

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Along the way the internal joke started being “Dont do X or you will get a fine”, and it encompassed anything from real stuff (you do get fines for all sorts of reasons in SG) and completely invented ones, but it was an endless source of laughter for us during our time with Val and Hannah. The walk ended up at a high up platform with one of the five Merlion that decorate the city, where we joined a crew of other tourists to take our turn getting pictures with it. Beyond, there was a bell themed café where the cable car to Sentosa starts.

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We went to a hawker for dinner, and our next stop was the SG Nights festival, that was coincidently part of a schedule of celebrations following Singapore’s Independence day. A few venues such as museums were opened to the general public for free, and shows were going on outdoors as well. We started our walk next to an old white church. On its grounds, they had made some beautiful small shrub like structures covered in purple lights. We continued towards a museum, but were discouraged by the amount of people queueing to get in. Instead, we decided to go watch a projection on the National Museum walls, which was awesome. On the way, we saw plenty bright art installations to keep us busy and enchanted. At last, a Belgium performance group put up a show, with wonderful live music and some dancers hanging from a crane. It was soo fabulous! We roamed around for a while longer and found the other flatmates by chance. By then it was around 11pm, and we all decided to head back home.

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The next morning Val and Hannah went to church so we had a pretty quiet morning. In the afternoon we headed to Chinatown. A temple had a huge display of fresh food offerings left there for the ghosts / spirits. I could not believe my eyes that all this food (about 50 tables full) was left there to rot while there are so many hungry people around the world, but no level of indignation would make them change their beliefs, so I had to let it go. We visited a Chinese and an Indian temple. The former was not opened for general public, but Val and me did go into the latter and observed the ceremonies for a while.

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As the sun was starting to get low, we took a double decker bus to Clarke Quay, the bar district of SG. On the bus, we occupied the first seat on the top floor, and pretended we were driving the bus, and road raging at the cars around us. It was hilarious! We sat on the side of the river while the sun set and the lights started to come up. Singapore is pretty during the day because of the parks and green spaces, but during the night you can tell it’s on its element, and it is just gorgeous. All the bridges and skyline come to life!

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We continued to walk along the river, passing restaurants offering sea food that you could pick straight out of water tanks while they were still alive. We wanted to see the Trees of Life show at Gardens by the Bay. The performance is a light show on man made trees that are about four storeys high, and are starting to get covered by climbing plants/vines. We had to take the LRT because we were a bit late for it, but we arrived with enough time to find a spot to lay down and watch the magic happen. It turned out that they had a special show on in commemoration of SG 50s anniversary, so most songs were cheesy pop songs telling us how marvellous Singapore was. It was so amusing it was hysterical, but Tim and me tried to behave so that we didn’t get a fine… The lights dance was really cool regardless. Val and Hannah left us to it while they went to get some kebabs, that were very yummy.

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Next on the list was a show in front of Marina Bay Sands (that funny building that seems to have a boat at the top) that was projected on dancing water. We hurried to get there in time, but only caught the last half of it. I had never seen such a thing, so it was quite awesome. We had to cut through the hotel to get there, and to our surprise, we discovered the hotel had a shopping mall inside it, that was so luxurious it had a fake river running through it and even an ice skate rink. Our last objective for the night was to check the huge merlion that stands at the water front, and we had to go through a crazy bridge to get to him. Val and Hannah told us that if you ever want to find a job in SG, you should refrain from visiting this statue or you will be cursed with the tourist jinx and will never accomplish your objective. So beware!

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Monday was a work day for our lovely hosts, so we were left on our own. One of the flatmates worked during weekends as a bartender and got Monday off, so he was at home as well. Without us asking he made lunch for us, which was super sweet. We borrowed V+H bikes and drove through some park connectors towards a natural reserve. The parks were big and sparkling clean (as the rest of the city) and some of the children playgrounds looked almost like art installations. We enjoyed it thoroughly. The reserve and lake were cute, but there was not really a path for bicycles, so after a few failed attempts were we encountered steps, we turned around and returned the way we had come.

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We bought supplies for dinner, and started making sweet potato pasta, a salad, and milanesas (aka schnitzel). It took us hours, but the result was a lot of food that everyone seemed to have enjoyed heaps. After dinner, the vodka came out. Mr bartender showed some of his skills and prepared multiple rounds of shots. Neither me nor Tim had drunk seriously in 4 months, so we were getting tipsy and silly after the third shot. And we were not the only ones… All in all, Singapore surprised us and we had a super wonderful time. I hope we get to come back with more $$ to enjoy some of the paid activities it has to offer…

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