Bob's travel journal

Bob's travel journal

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12/19/03

Singapore: Country Line Dancing and Mass Cleaning Activities


The one thing I won't miss about South Africa is the air in the cities, which is remarkably awful. They still use leaded fuel, and if the wind isn't blowing, the sticky stench of thick black exhaust is a constant nuisance.

Johannesburg was worst of all -- seemingly all 70s-era poured-cement covered with thirty years of grime, the air thick with as much tension as exhaust. I was almost glad to leave -- and more so at the airport, where gift shops whored the nation as badly as "Blackie," selling postcard images of plate-lipped, ring-necked women who surely have as much to do with modern South Africa as Comanche Indians do with the modern American southwest.

Come to think of it, though, they do sell that shit in the southwest. Hmm. I gotta think some more.

What I thought I would miss most, again, was the openness of South Africa's people. And sure enough, on arrival in Singapore, my first experience was riding the city's fabled subway, legendary for its scrupulous cleanliness (enforceable by fines and canings).

The train's arrival was counted down to the minute on a video display -- with perfect accuracy -- and within minutes, I was surrounded by extremely quiet and reserved people who avoided all contact or communication with each other. Man, did I miss South Africa, even the exhaust -- as if there's a kind of inherent humanity in chaos.

What I didn't realize: these people weren't reserved because they were Asian. They were reserved because it was seven a.m. on a Monday morning. In the course of all this globe-bouncing, I had lost all track of time and day. A few hours later, I was laughing with some of the friendliest people you could ask for -- and realizing, again, that stereotypes are insidious as hell.

This place is mind-blowing, if you're a people-watcher. Buddhist monks with cell phones. A bored kid in a Hindu temple wearing a Britney Spears T-shirt. And everyone -- I mean everyone -- waiting patiently at an empty intersection, refusing against every human impulse to jaywalk.

I'm not sure how to describe the culture of Singapore, and I'm not sure Singapore could, either. The place has been a trading post from the get-go, and so its indigenous culture has always apparently been more or less a hodgepodge of whoever was passing through. Which, in the 21st century, means Starbucks, SONY, Kylie Minogue, and every other multinational chain you can think of. (Speaking of which, I've now heard Kylie's latest single on four continents -- North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia -- and it still sucks.) I compiled my notes, in fact, in an Internet cafe near a graceful bridge crossing the Singapore river, finally leading to... the local Hooters.

Sigh.

This is the only country I've ever visited -- out of a couple dozen so far in my life -- where it's impossible to find the national flag in tourist gift shops. It simply isn't something they push here. Singapore isn't a brand of its own -- but the mall where other brands are sold.

Coming from South Africa, where there are national brands but few an American will recognize, the Fortune 500ness of it all couldn't be more striking. Walking down Orchard Road -- the famous main shopping drag -- is a visual and economic orgasm of brightly-colored profit activity. More: it's the Christmas season. Which means, even here -- perhaps especially here -- insanely oversized artifical trees, overhead lights that could unconvert St. Paul, and holiday carols sung in pre-recorded unison by 32 disembodied Japanese girls blasted at 90 dB.

Jesus Christ himself wouldn't have the slightest fucking clue what this is all about. But VISA does, I guarantee.

The eagerness to embrace -- and make comfortable -- foreign visitors was embodied in a single bit of signage, a picture of which I've gotta put on my website when I get home, advertising both "Western Line Dancing" and "Mass Cleaning Activities." That's this town in a nutshell.

This is really true: in the touristy parts of town, it's actually hard to find a place to stick your visual field where you won't see either a wastebasket, a sign telling you not to do something, or both. The trains run on time, and so, I gather, do the canings. Just enjoy the show, keep your voice down, buy all the shit you want, and be on your way.

Shopping orgasms seem to be the only kind they have here, incidentally. There is no sex in Singapore, at least officially, judging from newsstands and people-watching. There is also no skateboarding, gum chewing, boombox-playing, or everlasting-gobstopper-enjoying.

But that's just in the tourist strongholds. I wandered off into the Arab and Indian parts of town, and it gets a lot more human fast. Incidentally, the mix here is so diverse and concentrated that I was able to visit a Buddhist shrine, a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque, and a Christian church, all within a few blocks of each other. After which I felt like I had been comparison shopping for God.

I was born and raised a strict Baptist, which means I was leaning agnostic by the time I was about ten, since, come on, if God loves us the way like a big dad, he's not really gonna burn us in horrible brimstone for all eternity. I don't know anybody's dad who is that big of an asshole. And after seeing all these people bowing and kneeling and burning shit and shouting and whatnot, all in completely different manners, all quite convinced that their method was the correct one because their God Guys said so... you either gotta figure it's all good, none of it works, or your God is so much cooler that everybody else is just screwed.

After today, the third one is obvious ego lunacy, and I'm frankly not sure which of the first two to go with. I'm telling you -- it's one thing to read about different religions and take an ecumenical sit-down now and again -- I've been in mosques and temples of all kinds before, many times -- but it's another completely to do the Grand Tour in two hours.

It seems pretty obvious there's a natural selection that operates on ideas, just as surely as on genes. Ideas that don't work die out. Good ideas survive -- but only if they're also equipped with reproductive and defense mechanisms, just like life forms. Take two otherwise identical religions which practice loving your neighbor -- and give one a totalitarian, expansionist bent toward the outside world, requiring the conversion of non-believers -- while giving the other a live-and-let-live mindset. Stir. Come back in a hundred years and see which one is still around.

So. 6000 years into civilization, Christianity and Islam are the Arsenal and Manchester United (or, for Americans, the Coke and Pepsi) of religion. Like that's one hell of a shock, if you think about it. And the pacifists don't run shit.

Anyway...

The best thing about Singapore so far, other than bathroom floors cleaner than most surgical instruments, is the food. You bring a third of the world's cultures together in one place, somebody's gonna know how to cook. The best so far: fluffy pillows of doughy bao, stuffed with who-knows-what, purchased from a vendor with three teeth in Little India.

The worst, surprisingly (or not): the food at the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel, something every guide book recommends as a classic Singapore destination, given that they invented the Singapore Sling, a drink which no one I have ever met likes, but what the hell. The food at the Long Bar is overpriced and thoroughly ordinary, and you're surrounded by a bunch of loud businessmen pretending to have fun, and if that's your cup of tea, stay home and go to Bennigans. If you ever come to Singapore, buy your food from people who are kinda scary-looking.

Trust me on this. The scarier the people, the better the food.

That said, I didn't have the gall to try the Fish Head Soup, Pig Organ Porridge, or any of the several dishes I saw with feet visibly sticking out of them. So: I am full of shit. Try to remember that.

The religion thing got me wondering about bookstores, so I wandered into the biggest one I could find: Borders. (Of course.) And, for the third country in the row, Michael Moore Michael Moore Michael Moore. Does this guy even realize that he's one of America's leading exports? The religion section: Dalai Lama stuff, buncha Korans, whole mess of Hindu, and a shelf of Bibles, all side-by-side. Nice.

Also for the third country in a row, people who can read (at least) seem to regard Bush as an insane moron, judging from the bookstore displays, which are big on not just Franken, Chomsky, et al, but also local titles with covers depicting Bush as everything from a mental patient to Moe Howard.

Still no sign of the Motivating Your Wallet Through Sheer Damn Denial Of Other People's Right To Shit variety of book so common back in the states. (They do have a whole rack of Chicken Soup books, however -- and beside them, a sort of Asian variant, called "Who Broke My Rice Bowl?")

That's not to say they've got everything straight up here, however. In the foreign language section, one finds titles like "Communicating With Your Indonesian Domestic Helper" -- which, dammit, can't be a surprise, since you've got this big prosperous city state, flanked by some of the poorest and overcrowded countries on the planet. So, again, money brings a different -- and yes, darker-skinned -- bunch of people along to do the dirty work.

Man, that act is getting old.

Singapore is still building itself, and somebody's gotta do the work. Over and over, I see dark-skinned people from India and Pakistan wearing the dirty clothes on construction sites. They're all friendly as you can imagine, but the language barrier is too much for me to overcome, so I can't say I know much more about it. Gotta learn Hindi someday. One thing I do know: in some of the real estate ads here, you find the additional small print, "Indians Not Eligible."

But I thought I just left South Africa.

Funny thing, while I'm on skin color (again -- I really want to drop it, but it seems, sadly, to be what much of the planet operates on). The hotel here has a satellite hookup, so I'm getting NHK from Japan, TV5 from France, BBC News, and broadcasts from both ESPN Asia and ESPN India.

Funny thing. The anchors on ESPN Asia and ESPN India... are mostly white. On ESPN freaking India. That's just wrong.

I am learning how cool cricket really is. Incidentally, the test match I attended in South Africa was a bit lopsided -- by about three hundred runs. I kid you not. I left before the end, if you're curious.

Back to religion: the constant barrage of western-style advertising makes it easy not to notice that the social conservatism you find in an ass-paddling for a wad of gum extends pretty deeply into what culture of its own this island has. But just open up an Op-Ed page, and dang: columns debating a recent Virginity Parade held by some teen anti-sex group straight out of Orwell, decrying bigamy as a national crisis, and advocating the return of -- I kid you not -- opium smoking.

Whoa.

Incidentally, somebody needs to tell the fashionistas designing some of the mall signage here that the word "Commode" doesn't always mean "stylish."

(And yes, this is completely hypocritical, given that I can't write a single bloody word in Mandarin, Bahasa Malay, or any of the other languages in use around here -- but you see the word used that way over glamour shots of anorectic millionaires, you can't help but laugh.)

One last story, my favorite Singapore moment by far:

Just south of town is Sentosa Island, which is something of a resort for the Singaporeans themselves. I took the cable car over -- a four-foot-square glass box, hanging 150 feet in the air, soundproof enough to effectively muffle panic screaming, which I know because I checked -- and then, having no idea what else to do, hopped on a monorail which circles the island's amusements, no dangling involved.

There's a beach on the far end of the island, so I hopped off for a walk. Pretty soon, two cool things happened.

Cool thing #1: a sign appeared, announcing that I was approaching the Southernmost Point in the Asian continent. Whoa. That's two continental southernmost points, found completely by accident, within a week. That's absurd.

So of course I stopped to get a picture of this impossible thing, and about a minute later, a woman approached me, asking if I wanted her to use my camera to get a picture of me with the marker. The cool part: she was a Muslim woman with a full headdress, with children, perfectly comfortable approaching a strange man in public.

My previous experience with Islam was mostly with Saudis, most of whom were Sunnis whose wives I couldn't even approach. So this was new for me. I'm not a fan of religion in general, as you've gathered, much less the various gendermandering you usually get as a result.

So I posed, and Fawza took several pictures while her kids and nieces and nephews goofed around and played and chased each other on the beach. And then we got a chance to talk. Fawza wasn't hugely comfortable discussing her religion, and there were (as always) some language hurdles, but I gathered that the Malaysian version of Islam -- or at least the kind Fawza and her family practices -- is a much more open-minded variety than what I'd seen before.

This was good to hear. I hope to learn more in the real world like this. The stuff I read seems to be about as accurate as the restaurant guides. Meanwhile, these Muslim kids on the other side of the planet seemed to be exactly like the kids back in the U.S. Which you'd figure, but still, it was good to see.

Before I moved on, I also overheard another group of teenage girls, all of them wearing headscarves, amusing themselves by singing the theme to "Friends" in remarkable harmony, their veils swaying side-to-side as they clapped their hands to the beat.

Cool thing #2: about a hundred yards away, I came across a group of Chinese kids, all of them about twelve, burying one of their guy friends to the neck in sand. I stopped to take a picture, and they all laughed in a welcoming, irony-free kind of way. I passed the camera around, and we all nodded and grinned, but I speak no Mandarin, and they seemed to speak no English.

Suddenly, one of the girls grinned, looked at me, and summoned a single word: "TITS!"

I had no more idea what that was about than you do right now, I promise.

But then she turned to her friends, speaking rapidly and laughing in a naughty way, and next thing you know, the whole bunch was giving their patient buried-guy friend the most curvaceous set of sand-hooters I've ever seen, giggling like this was the dirtiest, wildest thing they could ever imagine doing.

I took a few more pictures and passed the camera around so they could see the results in the viewfinder. I bet they're still talking about it, judging from the open-eyed squealing that occurred.

This was more delightful than I can describe.

I'm trying not to wonder a) why in the world the only English word a Chinese Malay 12-year-old would know is "tits," and b) why it would occur to her that this particular word, and the resulting large man-breasts, would be the best way to amuse a visiting American...