Archive for the 'Singapore 2010' Category

Another Something New

Now I am in Singapore. Six weeks almost, five in my new job as a derivatives broker. Try as I might to place the when and the why I began pursuit of such a life of flux, I am at a loss. That is, if ever it was a pursuit. Mostly it is the smell of adventure, of throwing caution to the wind and testing the boundaries of my comfort zone, less I get bored standing still.

Naturally the first months are the hardest. An all too familiar longing for belonging in the disquiet of ambivalence. Ultimately, why I should haul my indebted self half way around the world again, when I could be comfortable at home. Alas the question, where is home?

From that last day in April when I awoke in my sleepy hometown of Swanage, at the end of the roller coaster ride that was life in India, the days and nights of a fortnight of solitude blur into one. The ensuing weeks I spent in Derby, valuable time with my brother and his fiancée. I recall the first evening in Derby, a bright summer’s day the kind you reminisce of the English summer (but rarely meet with). A beer in the park watching the cricket. Preparations for the new job and a visit to London, wedding rehearsals and best man duties. The rest of the family and soon-to-be in-laws arrived in the final week crescendoing on a warm Saturday evening, best man speech delivered and duties fulfilled, watching little bro and his wife gallop away to the Greek coast and the beginning of the rest of their lives.

Saturday night in a travel lodge in Derby, my parents, sister and I waving off family friends in the morning. Sunday night in a travel lodge in Heathrow, my parents and sister waving me off in the morning. The plane that played host to those twelve hours was a cavern for my sensibility. It is curious how much thought can catalyse a simple journey from a to b. Not so close an experience to my railway journeys in India, but nonetheless laced with the same scent of anticipation and apprehension. Here we go again, another beginning, another something new.

I arrived in Singapore on Tuesday morning (8th), mirroring the previous two visits with an MRT ride to Kembangan and a sweaty walk to Frankel Avenue (though the temperature was notably milder with the rain). In the familiar confounds of Frankel Hostel, I dumped my bags in the empty dorm room. Excited to be back, I retraced my steps back to the station to grab breakfast at the bakery. After topping up my sim card I stopped to rest on a bench, unsure of what time the others would arrive. I was very fatigued. Eventually I resolved to head back to the hostel for a nap. A couple of hours later I awoke to new guests, Alex’s distinctive Hamburg accent announcing their arrival. Alex, Mari, Ira and Anna are in Singapore for a fleeting visit en route from Malaysia on their way back to Delhi. The following two days were spent doing the usual sightseeing that Alex and I have done before. I left the guys for much of it while I was busy with viewings, intent on finding a place before starting work the next Monday.

That evening I met Jas after a viewing near Little India and we rounded up the others for drinks and dinner at Esplanade. Wednesday afternoon I left the guys to a film while I made my way to Bukit Timah for another viewing. A nice semi-detached house in a good neighborhood and an interesting local housemate. He took me for a tour of the park and a drink in the local pub, dropping me at the MRT station on the pillion of his BMW motorbike. He seemed like a sociable guy and the room was everything I could have asked for so I signed up on the spot.

On Wednesday night we met Valerie, a friend of Jas that Alex and I know from the first trip. Dinner at Esplanade again and a return visit to ladies night at Zouk where we meet Jas. It was euphoric to be back in party mode with close friends, though their impending departure and my new beginning left us nostalgic. On Thursday we took a tour through China Town and waved off Alex and Mari from there. Dinner and drinks with Anna, Ira, Jas and Valerie at Brewerks and most of Friday spent with Ira exploring a botanical park, bidding final goodbyes in the late afternoon. Alone in the evening, I went to the office for some paperwork and met another friend Jas introduced for drinks in Holland Village.

It was a welcome few days with close friends from my “India” era, a fantastic opportunity to see them again and show them the city I am moving to. Yet, with the absence of space to de-stress from preceding events and pressure to find a place, it was somewhat clouded by fatigue and stress. Nonetheless, a great start to the new era. Jas helped me into the new place on Saturday evening. Sunday spent assembling the bed in my new room. Everything in place and on time, I marched off to work on Monday morning, ready for that something new.

Gallivanting again

Monday afternoon, back in the regime. Dhal and japati sit weightily in my stomach post company lunch with Kez. A cappuccino courtesy of the Cafe Coffee Day machine sweetens the aftertaste, my fingernails are stained yellow. However, the regime is different now. Alex hopped off on his travels last week leaving me relegated to a seat behind a new wave of trainees that have commandeered our usual workspace. A sense of change in the air, I feel like mother India is done with me, chewed, chundered and spat me out, and I don’t much feel like outstaying my welcome. It has not long been like this, but its been a long time coming.

The fortnight after Amritsar I didn’t travel, I guess the downtime with our 6th Kapoor was entertainment enough. I recall an Fbar night somewhere in there, Mimi’s first night back in the city, a Saturday night house party in Gurgaon, standard ladies night in UP, Machan meal on Friday with a couple of Sri Lankan guys and on to Mo’s Reggae Raja at Cafe Morrison before retreating to Hex Tax. A Delhi house party on Saturday and a double movie marathon to recover on Sunday. Kapoors business as usual. Then along came Monday and Alex’s final family dinner turned into extended family. And that was it. Alex fled on Tuesday morning and I disappeared a few hours later.

I have been gallivanting again. Another impulse decision on the strength of a weak job prospect, I packed off to Singapore on a whim, the second time in almost as many months. This is how it went.

Wednesday 23:27 Touched down 6:30 in the morning. Not much sleep on the flight but Kingfisher were as accommodating as always. Booked into the familiar Frankel Hostel and took a much needed power nap. Awoke to a potbellied American sealing duck tape around the gaps of an unused door. The eccentric says he is an ex-navy officer come property developer who now resides in Jakarta married to the queen of Indonesia. She has five mansions in Jakarta and he lives in the third biggest. It’s impossible to take the guy seriously, especially given he is staying in a hostel, but he does have a rather conspicuous Jade ring on his right hand. Late morning I had breakfast at the corner restaurant and took off to find the offices where I will be interviewed tomorrow and Friday. A brief stopover at City Hall to see the harbour, then back to the hostel. Jas canceled plans for ladies night so I took dinner at a hawkers in Bedok market and sat watching a Mandarin flick over a beer.

This trip was always a risk taking venture. I’m not on holiday, I’m shopping for a job and there’s a good chance I’ll come back without one. Even so, it won’t be wasted. The second time I’ve passed through the city this year, I feel very acquainted. That’s what I enjoy the most about my travels, really getting to know a place and it’s people. It’s another dot on the map where I know I can safely retreat, another pocket of familiarity in the global village.

Friday 15:53 The interviews took place yesterday and today. Yesterday was more of a “warm up,” a company I’m not so interested in but a prospect worth pursuing all the same. I spent the first part of the morning, breakfast at the bakery outside Kembangan MRT and straight to the company’s office. The remainder of the morning and early afternoon I spent looking around a Buddhist museum on the top floor of a temple and lunch in China Town. Back to the hostel to cool down in the comfort of the AC. Early evening I ventured into Little India, a place avoided on the previous excursion for obvious reasons. Yet I needed something to do and this seemed like an option.
 
Little India was exactly that. How curious it is that a culture so strong can be pristinely preserved in a bubble inside another. Indians, mostly guys, anywhere and everywhere loitering in the street and lying on the pavement. Bollywood movies and Hindi music splurging out of smoke filled corners, cars ruling the road with their horns and people walking right at you. Of particular note, the mass of men jostling for attention outside Western Union. A handful of security guards are prudently placed to retain some force of order, this is Singapore after all.
 
A brief snack in a vaguely Indian mall and I’d had enough of all things India. Back to China Town, where I can breathe. A spot of shopping and perusing while I wait for Jas to cop off work and meet her at the hawkers close to her place for a midnight drink and a natter.
 
This morning was a similar routine. Breakfast at the bakery and a 10:30 interview. This time I am much more interested and the interview goes well. They have asked for an answer today so I took a few hours to mull it over. I grabbed a cab to meet Jas for her lunch break before coming back to the hostel. I’ve decided already, will call in the next hour. The details are yet to be worked out, so it’s still tentative. But it looks likely I’ll be setting up shop here in June. This evening, dinner and a few celebratory drinks with Jas. I think I’ve got what I came for.

Monday 15:27 Saturday morning we both took it easy with a lie-in. Walking around in the humidity of this city just seems to destroy you. Early afternoon Jas picked me up and we met an old friend of hers for lunch in a local hawkers and a beer in a “British” pub. Afterwards Jas and I head to China Town to pick up some Chinese tea, souvenirs that I never got around to procuring last time. Then we catch a film, Clash of the Titans. After dinner in a Thai restaurant we finish the night over a beer in Red Dot, our first evening outing when I last came with Alex.

Sunday afternoon in Singapore

Sunday we took lunch in a mall by the esplanade, a brisk walk until the humidity got too much and contemplation over an iced tea by the Merlion statue. Time got away from us and soon it was 3pm, back to the airport via the hostel. The flight plan was less than convenient this time around, arriving in Mumbai 20:55 local and leaving for Delhi 6:05 the next morning. With nowhere to spread I snoozed in my seat until the gate opened at 4, boarding at 5. I slept the two hours to Delhi and now I am exhausted. The pre-paid taxi from the airport was the same old, driving in all manner of rage when I refused to pay the toll charge included in the fare (as always). So exasperated by the traffic he squeezed motorcyclists off the road and catalyzed a minor accident knocking one guy off his bike. He went off in Hindi when he realised I wouldn’t tip him extra, but soon figured it was useless and drove off in a storm. The usual rude awakening back in India, I don’t see myself doing this many times more.

It’s convenient for me that things feel like they are wrapping up here now, nine months is aplenty for me. I need a month of downtime with the family before I move onward, leaving a fortnight to bid goodbye to my family here. What a journey it’s been, I’m simply at a loss how best to end it.

From Manali to S’pore & KL

Here I am again. Gate four of the domestic departure lounge in Mumbai airport, following a five hour flight and a convoluted transfer process from the international airport. My flight for Delhi departs in a couple of hours. A grandmother is sitting with her family in the row in front. She is settled now, but was busy burying her brow in a debate some moments before. I have observed this as a popular Indian pastime, to search for a point of contention in regular discourse and dispute it fervidly. Now the family are standing, most likely an expression of their earnest intention of being first in line to board the plane.

The coach that herded us to the domestic airport afforded me with a view of the mud and rubble that litters the ground in the intervening spaces between the tarmac runways. We passed a street of ramshackle houses the outer-side of a ring fence that encloses the airport; the usual hotch-potch of timber, corrugated iron and everything else that supports the makeshift construction of a slum. These are the univocal signs that I am back on the subcontinent, a world away from my departure point at 10:15 this morning, in the opulent metropolis of Singapore.

It’s a strange kind of “welcome ceremony” I am growing accustomed to on my travels in and outside of India, that the burgeoning features of the most populous, cultural and fast advancing of society I know should strike me so hard at the moment of arrival. Then again, a fortnight abroad in the most diverse, affluent and advanced of societies should be sufficient contrast to throw things into perspective. Now I am being moved to gate six.

Winding it back a moment, I arrived fresh from Jaisalmer and Jodhpur on Tuesday morning three weeks ago and took off for Manali on the Thursday evening with Alex, Mari, Kelly and Ira. There was the usual rush to get a cab into Delhi in time to catch the bus. This time me and Alex were the delay, sitting in our room ardently trying to book a flight to Singapore the coming Monday. Mari packed a bag for me and the cab waited outside while we got it booked. A few things had come together at the last minute; my visa problems finally sorted, a job prospect and the opportunity to pay a surprise visit to Jas, our friend in Singapore, for Chinese New Year and her birthday. Anyway, flights booked we took off for a weekend in Manali, a famous hill station in Northern Himachal Pradesh. We found the bus, late, still loading up baggage.

Fourteen hours later I awoke to crispy white snow caps and rocky mountain passes of the Himalaya, welcoming us to Indian honeymoon paradise. The coach was full of overt Indian newly weds despite it being out of season (since the stars don’t line up). I can see why, a hill station 2,000 meters high with a towering Himmalaya backdrop, covered in a think blanket of pure white snow (Kelly’s first experience thereof). For us, it was the perfect weekend getaway. We caught a cab from the bus station up the hill towards the old part of town, but were soon grounded by faltering traffic caught out by the snow and ice. So we left the cab and walked the remainder into town for breakfast.

After breakfast we meandered our way through the town past yaks and street hawkers and up the hill towards Old Manali. Feet soaking from deep prints in the snow, we found the old town empty and deserted with no guest houses open owing to the low season. So we backtracked a short distance and found an affable lady who offered us a cosy two floor apartment at the same rate of an ordinary room. She said she liked the way she saw Ira walking up the hill. A warming afternoon with a chai in front of a log fire, a walk up the hill to the local temple and back into town for dinner. That was when we discovered Mountain View, our favored eating spot which we frequented every meal of the day thereafter.

On Saturday we made our way to the other side of the town to bath in the local hot springs. Walking back down the hill after the springs I was warmed enough not to need a coat or gloves until we reached the bottom. All the while there were stunning views of the sun glistening in the snow and bouncing off the mountains that encircled us. Late afternoon we waved Kelly and Ira off as they were returning a day early, and flitted about the town before evening came. Dinner in the usual spot. Sunday was more of the same, and since the snow was thick enough to rule out any major hiking routes we just chilled in the town and made the most of the peaceful milieu. Back on the bus Sunday afternoon, returning to Gurgaon early on Monday morning. Alex hopped off to work for a few hours and I stayed at home to pack and prepare for the next holiday. Ah, the life.

Armed with eight bags of Lay’s Tangy Tomato Chips (Jas’ favorite Indian snack), me and Alex took a cab to the airport on Monday afternoon. We arrived in S’pore, via Mumbai, early on Monday morning. As if a new world had presented itself to us, we took the super efficient MRT subway a few stops and alighted. We ambled down the road in the 27° heat and found our hostel. Basic but adequate, the hostel was located on a street not far from the airport and Jas’ place. It was evidently a well-to-do area, with luxurious houses stretching all the way down the road, Beamers, Porsche and Mercs parked in the showcase driveways. A shower and a few hours to recover. A meal at a local eatery, where I attempted both Mandarin and Cantonese with the waitress but the language was still foreign. Jas later advised it was probably Hokkien, a dialect of southern China, but then it could have been Malay or Tamil or any of the other dialects and languages that amalgamate in this cocktail of a city.

Later in the day we paid a surprise visit to Jas. Having jotted down rough directions from google maps, we tracked down her condo and knocked on the door. He mother answered and we dutifully explained that we were friends from India. Jas wearily appeared from bed when we stood in her doorway and she was sufficiently surprised. For the remainder of the afternoon we chilled in the comfort of Jas’ air conditioned room while her neighbors called to wish her family a happy Chinese New Year. Then in the evening Jas took us and a college friend to another friend’s place in the north of the city. We spent the evening talking and munching on traditional snacks for the New Year. We were even given a couple of red packets (envelopes of money given by elders). A drink at a bar, Red Dot, in town.

On Wednesday Jas took us for traditional Dim Sum Cantonese in the city and showed Alex some of the rich residential areas while I was occupied with an interview. After they picked me up we drove to Arab Street where we chilled with a hookah. Later, Jas took us to one of her favorite hawker places for Malay food and we went back to hers for some drinks. Time for a quick skype call with Mimine, back in Paris, and we headed out for ladies night at a club called Butter Factory. First sight of the Singapore skyline, an impressive backdrop for a night out. The night scene in Singers is every bit as expensive London, if not more, with cover charges and drinks selling at a premium owing to the so-called “sin tax.” One thing is clear, entertainment in this city is expensive.

Thursday Jas was pre-occupied with her first day in a new job so we spent the morning sorting out flights to Kuala Lumpar and explored the neighborhood. In the early evening we headed back to Jas’ condo, chilled in the pool and read for while we waited for her to come home. Although she lives in a relatively small apartment, the complex looks like something from a holiday brochure with a large communal pool, tennis courts and gym. I could get used to this. When Jas got back we took a shower and met the girls for a seafood dinner of crab at a place called Jumbos along a the promenade of the river. An expensive meal, but so is everything. We finished the night with some cocktails at an elaborate bar/club called Indochine.

On Friday Alex and I occupied ourselves by getting the MRT to China Town and wondering around the street markets decorated festively for the New Year. We took brunch in China Town and got sidetracked by the electronics shops, since I was in need of a new camera. Next stop, as per Jas’ recommendation, we staked out an electronics mall called Sim Lim Square. It didn’t take long to find the bottom price for what I wanted. No sales job or haggling here, Singaporeans do their research before they leave the house so there’s never a hard sell or much negotiation when it comes to buying on the high street. Later we took a stroll to the waterfront and chilled out looking over the cityscape. When Jas was done with work we met her for dinner and a couple more of her friends for drinks in town. After some overpriced beers, they took us for a bite of frog soup, famously served in the red light district of the city, though there wasn’t much to show for it.

Saturday Jas took us to Sentosa, an island resort a short drive from the mainland. We relaxed on the beach in the sun, if a little commercial (it was an artificial beach) it was a beach at least. In the afternoon we hired bikes and explored the island further afield. On the far side, beyond a new casino complex that is being built we found a “super town” for the über rich and famous. This was a real eye opener into the extent of the affluence here. Though the whole area was still in the midst of the boom of construction, the houses looked like they had been lifted straight from the cardboard set of a Hollywood movie. I can’t imagine anyone who could amass such wealth in one lifetime to afford an address in this district. Yet it was the cars in the driveway that were the real giveaway. Never before have I seen so many luxury cars in one vicinity, or yachts for that matter. On our rented cycles we passed driveway after driveway, a Bentley and a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, another Bentley. Here is the mark of the third wealthiest country in the world by GDP per capita. After an insightful view into the bourgeois of Spore Jas took us by her favorite spot for Chicken rice (while Alex crashed in the car). We picked up some beers to sip by the pool and finished off some Chinese snacks and a bite of the infamously smelly durian fruit back at Jas’ condo.

Early Sunday morning Alex and I took off for Kuala Lumpur. With Jas busy at work during the week, and running out of options for things to do in Spore, we decided to check out the neighbors. We touched down late morning and found our way into the city centre from the low budget terminal a bus and a train out of the city. Finding our hostel with relative ease, a big backpackers place that slept eight per room, we ditched our bags and headed out for a day of sightseeing. Some time wondering the streets of China Town and another market and we hit the main attraction, the Petronas Towers. We were fortunate to arrive at the booking desk for the skybridge the same time as a cancellation and were let into the next group to walk across the bridge that adjoins the two buildings on the 42nd floor. The tallest building in a world before Taipei 101, an impressive construction. After the towers we went looking for the central park to chill for a while. When we reached it started raining heavily. Exhausted, we collapsed under a pagoda to wait for the rain to stop, and drifted off for a power nap.

Keen to explore the night scene in KL, we headed back to backpackers central for a meal of fired mee noodles and took some drinks back to the hostel. The great thing about hostels is that you can meet some real characters on the travelers circuit. On the far bunk, there was the 38 year old Swedish psychiatric nurse / bouncer who travelled eight months a year and could put our knowledge of India to shame. He had spent time in India every year of his life since he was 17. Then there was the endless nomad traveller, Chinese-of-origin he-she, dressed in a scanty sarong. The young Japanese who thought he could speak German, but couldn’t. The quiet Italian guy in the corner whose comic accent reminded us infinitely of our Italian friend in Gurgaon.

After some entertaining drinks in the hostel we made for town, aiming for a club named Zouk. However, on discovering it was closed we found a bar district a block away and paid the cover charge for the busiest looking venue, the Beach Club. Upon entering, it didn’t take long to figure out that every girl there was a hooker. But then the same was true of every other club on the street. Fortunately, once you get over the seediness of the place, there were some good venues and we had a good time exploring the scene.

On Monday we booked a tour that took us to a couple of tourist traps in the city, the kind of place where the tour guide gets commission for dropping us, namely a local arts centre and a pewter factory. Nevertheless, the latter was vaguely interesting and when we were done we visited a temple in some caves and a large waterfall that had seven sections with man-made plunge pools at the bottom where we could swim. A couple of hours exploring the waterfall and relaxing in the water and we called it a day. In the evening we tried a different drinking district, but when all we found were empty bars we headed back to the seedy district of the night before. In a bar across the road we met some interesting characters, a hot shot who claimed he was in “immigration” and an Iraqi entrepreneur in textiles who drove us home. An entertaining night observing the night life of KL at work.

Tuesday, our final day in KL and we stormed the city centre on foot. Not a great deal more to see, save for the shopping malls and eateries. We went on a mission to find a Cantonese film we have been looking for a while, amongst the various shopping complexes and high streets. Sunday morning we flew back to Spore, a welcome four hours sleep. I nodded off the instant I took my seat on my plane, not even stirring for takeoff. Alex fell asleep looking out of the window, book still in hand.

Back home in Spore we had to shift hostels a few minutes down the road, and made the most of the opportunity to steal a few more hours of recovery sleep. Later, we got a bus to Bedock market to procure a birthday present for Jas. In the specialist liquor section of a supermarket we were struck by the familiar sight of Old Monk, an Indian rum that is the staple liquor back in Gurgaon. Despite the fact it was six times as expensive as it is in India, posing as a premium liquor in Singapore, we felt obliged to buy it for Jas for old time’s sake. Dinner in the hawkers place just around the corner from Jas’ place while we waited for her. Then the three of us headed back to the hostel for pre-drinks. Wednesday night is Ladies Night in Spore, just as it is in Gurgaon, and we were armed with our “old friend” from Gurgaon. We met a couple of friends of Jas and headed to Zouk.

Thursday we took a genteel afternoon walk along the South Ridges Walk and Henderson Waves, a park close to the city centre. We stopped by Harbour Front and the National Geographic Shop on the way to Brass Basah. Walking along the street we suddenly became aware of a loud sound equivalent to that of a helicopter or jet overhead, but looking around we couldn’t find the source. Then we spotted it, a Lamborghini idling it’s engine in front of the traffic lights, Singaporean style. That evening was a quiet one since Alex was flying back the following morning to meet his parents in Delhi. So we chilled as Jas’ place watching the Cantonese classic we acquired in KL.

Early morning on Friday Alex left and I took on the rest of the city by foot. Starting at Marina Bay, I walked to China Town for brunch. Then I took the MRT back to City Hall and walked the entire stretch of Orchard Road, the shopping artery of Spore, all the way to the botanical gardens. It took the best part of half a day and when I got to the gardens I crashed under a pagoda while I waited for the sudden outburst of rain to subside. Back to Marina Bay to admire the cityscape as evening arrived, a shower at the hostel and Jas picked me up for drinks with a couple of friends in Arab Street.

On my last day, Saturday, Jas and I rented bikes and explored the East Coast. It is a pleasant stretch of beach and palm trees and tracks for cycling and rollerblading. The sight of Indians celebrating Holi on the beach and the unmistakable aroma of Indian food was a sharp remainder of what I would go back to in a couple of days. We spent most of the day there and meandered back towards Jas’ place on foot. The walk was longer than Jas had anticipated and a couple hours in the heat of the sun took its toll, such that I had to stop for a traditional Chinese rehydration remedy drink. Back to the condo for an hour, where I recovered in the pool while Jas visited her grandmother with her family.

After showering and borrowing a clean shirt from Jas’ dad, the family picked me up and took me to her Auntie’s place for a family gathering on the final day of Chinese New Year. I was very grateful that her family could extend such hospitality, and when we arrived everyone was very receptive to my presence. The uncle even brought out a large collection of whisky for the occasion and invited me to drink with him. Later in the evening Jas and I excused ourselves and we went to meet a couple of friends for drinks before calling it a night.

Early on Sunday morning Jas drove me to the airport. We had a traditional Chinese breakfast of egg yoke and bread before I bid my goodbyes and made for the departure lounge. Mixed emotions, it was the smoothest holiday from India I could have asked for. More than a holiday, I feel an affinity with the people and the place already. Jas and her friends and family were the best of hosts. Spore is another one of those unique states, a few million migrants living together in a blend of cultures and customs and languages, in one of the most advanced and harmonious societies I have thus experienced. I can see why it is branded a sibling of Hong Kong; a city that shouldn’t exist but somehow does, and it works.

Another Asian Tiger ticked off the list. Another Asian city I could actually live in. But now I need to focus, the ever-present bedlam and pandemonium of India is home for now. Patient but relentless, she is waiting for me.


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