Bob's travel journal
Please send feedback on these entries to Bob , not to Tom.
Bob's travel journal
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
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
Come to think of it, though, they do sell
that shit in the southwest. Hmm. I gotta think some more.
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
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
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
Jesus Christ himself wouldn't have the slightest fucking clue
what this is all about. But VISA does, I guarantee.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Trust me on this. The scarier the people, the better
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
There's a beach on the far end of the island, so I hopped
off for a walk. Pretty soon, two cool things happened.
#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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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