Monday, August 30, 2010

Singapore Day Two: Infinity Pools, Decadent Capitalism, Malay Food, and Drunk Chinese People

I woke up with achey feet. No surprise there. I was one of the first up - my tendency to arise at 7:00 AM is a bit uncommon among my age group - and made an attempt to tip-toe quietly out. Of course, I failed. I am not so good at the whole quiet thing. (Friendly people who lived below me in New Orleans asked one day, out of genuine curiosity, what was making all the thumping sounds up there, did I have a really tall gentleman friend or something? I had to reply that, no, yeah, it was just me, making all the thumping sounds, you know, flat footed walker. Will try to work on it. I went out and got a really tall gentleman friend two days later. Then they stopped talking to me.)

I made tracks for the Suntec center for breakfast. Boil n' go noodles with fish balls and vegetables, you are my Perfect Breakfast. I had the whole thing down, now. I want one of these outlets in my kitchen.

In lieu of any cultural learning experiences (enh), I had intended to visit a Chinese food court that Chowhound had whole-heartedly suggested located in the heart of Chinatown. This involved an extremely long trek through the Financial District. The Singapore Financial District is, however, nothing if not one of the more profound paeans to the power of capitalism I have ever wondered through. Money is in the air, on the street, and on the faces of everyone passing by, everyone's in a power suit or Power Heels, everyone is out to kick some ass and destroy the universe in the process.

I can't say this is a critique of such. Singapore and its people have busted their asses in the past fifty years to transform their city from a seedy little fishing island into one of the planet's biggest profit centers, and they have managed to do it all in a surprisingly pleasant fashion. I cut through the crowds like a fish among sharks (aching feet) but have at least a sense that with the proper acumen and effort, I could join their ranks, if I wanted. (I lack acumen and effort, but, well). It was overcast and a bit sticky outside, like most days in Singapore: I did not want to give in and take the subway but it looked more and more appealing. I went over the same escalator at least four or five times in the same shopping center - this is like passing the same date palm over and over in the sahara, I guess.

The Fullerton Hotel. Have some colonial decadence.

I looked up at one point and saw what appeared to be a sparkly patch on one of the buildings: squinted, deduced it was a pool, a clear one, sort of like a fish tank on the side of a huge building. I had to check this out: I walked into the building. It was a private residential apartment, but I decided to walk forcefully to the lifts, and was not stopped. A man swiped his card and looked at me: "You going up?" I nodded.

I pressed the button for the highest floor. Success: The Pool. And it was, no lie, a pool, a mid-sized one that sloshed inordinately and was clear like a fish tank, according an impressive view of the city below. An Israeli looking guy in a speedo was getting out: he looked at me curiously, and I looked back. Time to leave. I fell in behind an Indian real-estate lady showing the place to a Chinese guy dressed like a middle aged hipster, which he was. "But this place is too old," he whined to her, as we got into the lift.

I finally made it to Chinatown, and found myself wandering down endless corriders of the same Chinese shopping center, which was full of knock-off shoe emporiums and places to buy medicinal antelope horn. It was definitely Beijing deja-vu: the scent of dried ginseng and ungents in the air, five spice somewhere or another, someone cooking something in grease and chili sauce, a lot of poorly-articulated shouting from down the hall. My feet hurt more. The cats down here: also missing their tails.

The food court failed to materialize and I ended up breaking down and eating at a Vietnamese place. Vietnamese food, for me, is the equivalent of total breakdown, total security, like giving up and going to McDonalds. Northern California, in case you were not aware, is at least a quarter fueled by pho and spring rolls and bun bowls. I reasoned that I was unlikely to get anything approximating a salad in India (truth) and sat down. Sadly, disappointing: overpriced, mediocre, and tiny portions. You win some, etc etc. Sitting next to Americans. It's strange how I am filled with a powerful urge to Befriend and Assist fellow Americans I meet overseas, and the same goes for Brits and Canadians. We share the same language, the same cultural norms, and the same base origins: we should probably stick up for one another. I managed to avoid starting a conversation, and shoved off.

I went back to the hostel and struck up a conversation with the front-porch crowd, whose makeup had not altered signifgantly from the day before. One guy, Fernando, was in the US Navy and was heading home that night, and was efficiently befriending everyone before he got back on the ship. "I don't want to leave," he kept on repeating, "man, you guys are the best." (How many times have we all said those words, in various incidences and in various groups of people? Sometimes I think that is half of why I travel: I travel so I can put it in context. That someday perhaps I will authentically say You Guys are the Best Ever.)

Fernando got us all posed in photographs, and I went along. I always find it very weird to be asked to be in the photos of people I have just met five minutes before. I imagine them getting home, going through their photos on their computer or whatever, and looking at me and going, "Now who the fuck was that, again? Was I drunk when I took that?" This is one of the many reasons I usually beg off photos of myself: I like to explain that I am in fact a Bedouin desert animist, and am convinced that photos will leach away my soul. That shuts people right up.

I made friends with a couple of Germans. Befriending Germans is almost always a rainy day solution in foreign countries. Any place you go to, any obscure region you reach or outback town you stumble across, there will be a German there, and he or she will be wearing functional flip-flops and a fanny pack and a sunburn. They will be incredibly friendly and will speak embarrassingly perfect English. How these people went from Nazis to hippies in two generations, give or take, is one of the wonders of modern sociology. We made plans to meet up and go do something or another, after dinner.

I decided to hunt down another Malay rice plate, and headed for a place fairly close to the one from the night before, out a bit past Little India. The night was beautifully lit and there were people in white robes and skull-caps everywhere: waiting out the sun light, waiting until it was time to eat and drink. I made for Minang on Kandahar Street and was not disappointed. I love the system. A big smorgasboard of food: they lump a plate with rice, you point to what looks good (with verbal commentary by your server), none of it costs a damn thing relative to the USA. I pretty much pointed at everything. "Okaayy, enough!" the server said, eventually. I paid up and sat outside. I couldn't figure out what the immense meat knuckle like things on the tables around me were. Next time.

All sorts of sambal ridden veg. Squeaky green beans with coconut and some sort of dried seafood. Chicken breast braised with chili oil and soy. That's not all.

The fish in black soy sauce was divine. It's a stinky ass fish - some sort of mackerel - but I happen to love my stinky ass little fish with lots of little bones. I dismembered it and stared back at the locals staring at me doing the dismembering, everyone in a good mood.The street beside me was lined with folks selling special Ramadan foods out of stalls - parathas and dates and onion cakes and falooda and god knows what else - and conducting raffles animatedly and loudly from microphones. I walked back past what seemed to be Singapore's largest dried seafood emporium, and the smell was like a solid and unyielding object, emanating from bin after bin of dried shrimps (all sizes) and fish and scallops and squid bits. But at least it is a smell of something I like.

We decided to visit the immense and all-consuming Marina Bay Sands Casino. The Sands dominates the Singapore skyline and is so funny looking that it is impossible not to pause and stare at, at least a few times a day. It is composed of three immense towers and it is crowned with a goddamn cruise ship. It cost 8 billion to build, which is doubtless more then the GDP of many shithole countries, and it was built by the Las Vegas based Sands group, in case you're curious about the effects of globalism at its finest. There is a 2,560 room hotel, a gigantic infinity pool (which costs 100 bucks to swim in), a giant casino, a convention center, art and science museums, celebrity chef restaurants all sorts, and every kind of boutique and designer retail outlet known to modern man.

The beast is curiously hard to get to by subway: you have to walk about a quarter of a mile over some of Singapore's grodier sidewalks before you hit it. I'm presuming they are feverishly building a subway stop out here. How could they not? It was only opened in June 2010: sucker is brand new. You approach it for seemingly miles before you actually reach the entrance. Going inside is also striking: there's a gigantic articulated metal structure above, the ceiling goes for miles, there are thousands of people in nice outfits milling around and looking overawed, and there are ambiently lighted and superlatively expensive things everywhere. We had originally tried to enter via the casino, but were stopped by the eminently polite guy-in-a-suit up front. "I am sorry, sir, but no sandals for men, he said, pointing to one of the Germans, who was wearing regulation flip flops.

"What if we switch?" he asked, pointing at my size five-and-a-half sparkly sandals.

"I don't think that's going to work, physics wise, but we can try," I said. We didn't actually make the experiment. We went around the casino.

Somehow I doubt most pool patrons are this attractive.

We had intended to go up to the Sky Park and look at the pool. Everyone goes and just looks at this incredibly large and majestic infinity pool, apparently, since swimming in it costs 100 dollars for non-guests, and that seems a bit decadent for the privilege of splashing around some with a nice view. As one of my companions observed, "Isn't that kind of weird? Going for a swim, and having all these tourists standing around and looking interestedly at you. It must be quite awkward." (Am imagining dimply high rollers in their Lycra dipping their feet in the pool, feeling self conscious and horrible about themselves for the first time in a few years. Am amused).

Unfortunately, there had been a spot of rain in Singapore so the Sky Park was closed to the public. The elevators were carefully guarded by friendly people in suits, and we were skunked - the guys were not brave enough to attempt my usual strategy of pretending to be part of a group and ambling nonchalantly into the elevator with them (their loss). So we purchased a surprisingly reasonably priced cookie from the sparkly bakery on the first floor, and went back outside to the dock. There was an Indonesian rock band playing a concert at the huge auditorium nearby, and it was being projected onto a Jumbotron nearby at ear-splitting volume levels. The band was awful, comically so: a big sweaty guy in sunglasses rapping poorly poorly written lyrics about poorly articulated love affairs, and a big sweaty lady doing approximately the same. The guitarist at least was passable. "Ah, let's sit and enjoy," one of the guys said, so we did, though enjoy was not the word I would have used for it. Maybe "endured" or "survived." Someone need to airlift some soul into the Indonesian nu-metal scene. Get the NGO's on it.

We ended up back in Chinatown to get a late-night snack. To my shock and horror, the Chinatown food stands were almost all shut by 11:30 PM. What kind of half assed Chinese food shillers are these? They NEVER stopped selling food in Beijing last time I was there, city was an eternal smorgasbord, dumpling at 3:30 AM from various convenient locales on the street and otherwise, never a drunk and hungry specimen. What gives, Singapore? The Germans got noodles and I got a Coke from an obviously drunk lady. I sat back down, opened it. "They're all drunk, at this time of night," one of the guys said. Little clusters of people sat around the wreckage of their food, with whiskey and wine bottles slowly floating to the surface of ice-buckets: people were slapping each other on the back and horse-laughing and lying face down and delighted looking on the table.

"You know, you're right," I said.
One of the boys went up to get a drink, came back with a morbidly uncomfortable expression.
"I bought a drink from that lady over there," he said, the same one I had. "She touches my mouth, she says, "Ah, you have a spot there!" And then she says, "I only touch my boyfriend like that. But he say, he only like to look at my pussy." Then I got away."

The woman waved cheerily at us when we all looked in her direction.

"Bless Singapore," I said. An animated discussion about German and American sex tourists followed. I will learn all about that in Cambodia, I bet!

We went back to the hostel, and I headed to bed. More thumping and rummaging, more Bollywood music from next door. I hope that my thumping and rummaging was somehow drowned out by the Bollywood music for my room-mates but I doubt it. At least none of them smothered me in my sleep.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Singapore Day One: Chili Crab, Malay Food, Too Much Walking, Hostel Culture

When I go to a new place I walk, and I walk with serious commitment. Walking is, I think, the best way to quickly and viscerally get a sense of a new location: you figure out where things are, you learn how to cross the street, you cross through neighborhoods, buroughs, and districts, you begin to become an inhabitant. I feel quite a bit of this is lost when you take public transportation (metros, buses) instead - there isn't the physical connection, there isn't the sense of Point A to Point B. This is a convoluted way of saying I walked my ass off in Singapore.

I got into the expectedly sparkly-clean airport at around 6:00 in the morning, and went through the equally painless customs area. Hopped into a cab and was conveyed to my hostel in Little India quickly and easily. I had a long discussion with the cabbie about everyone's favorite topic, food. We got into the standard good-natured pissing match dance of weird things we eat, and he finally ceded defeat when I mentioned that I adore kimchi and that my dad makes excellent chili crabs. "Goodness, you're too Asian for me," he said, in a low whistle. I suppose that is flattering.

The hostel was clean enough and decorated in that hippie-chic way of hostels everywhere. "It's too early for check-in, but you're welcome to crash here," the attendant said, gesturing to a stand of bean-bags. I took his advice. I crashed.

I woke up about two hours later to an entry-way full of backpackers, most of them spreading butter on toast and ambling around bleary-eyed and hang overed. The hostel offered free internet services, which I availed msyelf of, doing some quick and dirty research on good stuff to eat and things to do. I had, incredibly, failed to do this before-hand in Australia. Maybe I got distracted in Kalbarri.

I finally got myself in order and jumped onto the street. Little India, I was chuffed to discover, really is Little India. It's like a chunk of Bangalore transmuted into Singapore, down to Bollywood dance-clubs, Ramadan celebrating mosques, guys with a habit of staring too much and chai wallahs dispensing idlis, appams, and dosai to hordes of guys wearing linen clothing and chappals. I grabbed a little plastic cup of masala tea (in classic Indian style) and proceeded to point myself in the general direction of the water. It was a bit far, but I knew that. The Raffles was conveniently located along the way.

I took a lot of photos of the Raffles. This is due to a lifelong and indisputably bourgeios love of ultra fancy hotels. I'm going to hell. An ancedote: I walked through one of Singapore's countless high brow hotels - maybe it was the Conrad - and found myself missing my parents a lot. I could not initially figure this out, until I realized that I had spent all our family vacations in fancy international chain hotels with concierge desks and tasteful but decadent decorations and fountains that were just shy of tacky and so on and so forth. This may be indicative of a deep internal sickness or simply part and parcel of how I live and how my family lives (for a couple generations, now). We have conducted our largely very happy lives in international hotels with concierge desks and bellhops in stupid outfits. Chocolate on the pillow (if you're lucky) and the Concierge Floor for our Very Special Guests. I like staying in hostels or homestays but sometimes I just want sterile and vast efficiency (unironically).

And the Raffles is colonialism personified, encapsulated, even. It was built in a style meant to approximate some sort of paradise-like Balinese rest house and it achieves its goal quite brilliantly. It's a very open air hotel with a lot of catwalks and courtyards and hidden fountains, and staff everywhere padding around and trying to look inobtrusive. The doormen are, naturally, large and scary looking Sikh's. How did the Sikh's get a monopoly on body guard and door man status all across Asia, again? I considered coming back later in the evening so that I might write and try to look degenerate and strung out, but decided it was in fact not worth paying 20 bucks for a Singapore Sling for the privelege. I fucking hope you get to keep the glass!

The Youth Olympics were going on in Singapore, and the city was appropiately kitted out with giant movie-screens, sports paraphenlia, and cartoons of adorable mascots to celebrate. It looks to me like all this kerfuffle over the youth Olympics is Singapore's way of making a play for the real Olympics - which, judging by this go-round, they'd do a bang up job of.

These mascots are kinda emotionally distressing.

Certainly there were endless crowds of school kids en route to the events (and probably to compete), and a lot of grown up representatives of the teams stalking the streets and looking lost. I had never run across a pack of dramatically hirsute Azer-Baijani guys in track suits before, but this would be my first oppurtunity.

I stopped in at the enormous Suntec Convention Center - which was hosting quite a few of the youth olympic events - and found myself in the middle of an incredibly delightful food court. You can imagine my delight when I found I could get noodle soup with fish balls and lots of green vegetables for breakfast here. You pick out your items from baskets and then they boil it all for you in incredibly hot water right before your eyes, whang it in a bowl with some dipping sauce, and off you go. Delicious.

The mysterious Fish Spa.

Singapore, much like Hong Kong, is actually a gigantic and interconnected mall. I figured this out soon enough, primarily because it's by far the easiest and coolest way to get where you want to go on foot. I managed to make it to the Esplanade, and came out within sight of the harbor and the iconic Mer Lion statue. It's a hell of a sight.

I made tracks for the Asian Civilizations Museum, which I had heard was fantastic. This was entirely the truth.

I adored these pop-art cartoons of famous Asian "heroes". This is Mouse Deer (an Indonesian favorite), Hanuman, and I believe Vishnu. Don't quote me, though. The exhibit was obviously pitched for kids but I enjoyed it entirely too much.

I spent the most time in the Southeast Asia gallery, primarily because I don't know much at all about the art of the region and would rather like to learn. I know exactly jack about Indonesia and Malaysia and was happy to have the museum step in to help. There was plenty of Khmer art on offer which was even better. I need to make myself an expert on Cambodian art, oh, you know, yesterday.

Contemplative Hindu guy. Con Cobra. Apparently multiples cobras are a popular vehicle for Vishnu when vehicles are displayed.

The Javanese are extremely attached to their keris knives, which are ascribed with an almost spiritual import. Have a sign.

A sign. As important as wives/flutes/et all. You know.

Indonesian throne for royals. Absolutely gorgeous.

Some more ritual knives. I find these a bit appealing.

The Makara, a mythological Hindu creature. This particular wooden statue was just awesome. I want twelve in my backyard.

This lion, created out of Islamic calligraphy, was particularly striking. Probably signifies Ali, who was, after all, known as the Lion of God.

Have a sign.

A lovely embroidered Chinese coat.

As explained.

I guess I failed Filial Piety.

Fantastic Chinese scroll painting, by....

One Zhang Guolao and Lan Caihe. You know.

I believe this is a Sumatran statue. I was shushed by the guard after taking the photo. Apparently it is okay in some rooms and not others. Okay.

Knives of the Deccan plateau. There may be a knife theme here.

They shall be explained.

A vehicle of Garuda, trotted out for major religious festivals. I don't know how I've managed to miss these throughout my entire time in India. It's a little embarrassing.

And a vehicle of a lion.

Tamil Nadu? They love this bidness.

Doomed aquarium fish.

Lunch was Singapore Chili Crab. Anyone who knows me and my proclivities may guess at my thing for Singapore chili crab. My father makes a fantastic version. I went off a Chowhound tip off and selected Palm Beach seafood, which happened to be located conveniently closely to the Fullerton Hotel, the Asian Civilizations Museum, and the Mer Lion (always covered in hordes of eager looking Japanese tourists). The restaurant was typical Chinese seafood joint "chic", with gigantic aquariums as the focal point of pretty much everything. I was seated next to a businessman, who delicately and systematically took apart a lobster. Not me. Oh, no, not me. I don't know why they use white table clothes in these places, you know? Seems like a bad idea. Bad idea when I'm in evidence anyway. I commune with crab, I get close to it, I get up in it's shit (as the saying goes). This is a tactile, semi-erotic, embarassing-when-viewed-in-public but oh so good experience for me. Poor businessman at the next table, having to witness the horror.

They give you a lovely appetizer of dried fish with sweet chili sauce pre-crab, which I deeply appreciated. i love dried fish.

I had spicy morning glory, which came out first. Excellent. Some sort of dried fish material in here. I am always down for dried fish. Hooray!

I took photographs of this crab with pretty much the same ambition and passion as a porn photographer. Can't say I'm embarrassed. Look at this beast. Just look at it. Good lord. It's like an erotic dream I've had, the sort of dream you carry with you throughout the day and that sort of enraptures you but is way too embarrassing to share with anyone. You get my drift? Or, you know, there is the alternate possibility that most people do not in fact have erotic dreams about crabs doused in chili sauce and in fact I am alone in the world, which is a sad and tragic thought. Well, look at this fucker. Just look at it. Didn't cost TOO much as these things go, either. The memories last forever. Forever.

Good lord, I took a lot of photos of this crab. The waitstaff obviously thought I was insane. Such is the lot of a food blogger.

So, the Merlion. Symbol of Singapore. It's quite new, actually - thought up by the tourism board in 1966 and conceptualized soon afterwards. The fish body represents the city's origins as a humble fishing port, and the head represents the city's original name of "Singapura" - city of the lion. (Apparently the city's Malay founder had an encounter with a funny-looking lion on the island and named it as such). There are five Merlion statues in the city - only five official ones - and the tourism board carefully controls how the image is used. The primary statue originally was placed at the mouth of the Singapore river, but was moved to its current Official Viewing Platform near the Fullerton Hotel in 2002. It is now crawling with Japanese tourists. Getting a picture of it is difficult.

I walked back past the modern art museum, but couldn't summon up the energy to go inside. I did take pictures of this fantastic Ming Wong sign.....\

And these emotionally distressing statues.

So there's this thing called hostel culture, or at least I call it that. I am often gripped by flights of superiority and other repellant personality traits: I do not like or approve of hostel culture, and herein I will explain why. Hostel Culture seems to revolve around a bunch of people from the same (or pretty much country) who speak (pretty much) the same language and look (pretty much) the same, sitting around the hostel and getting sloshed together and feeling they have had a profound cultural experience. Look, it's fun to get drunk with new people, god knows I'm the last person to deny that, but it's the insular, lurking nature of Hostel People that pisses me off.

Why bother traveling to an exotic city if you're going to spend the entire vacation in the general vicinity of the hostel or on the front porch of said hostel, drinking can after can of cheap beer and discussing one's own country in great detail? What's the damn point? Not to mention that such a situation inevitably leads to quick-onset and vicious drama - someone hooks up with someone, someone accuses another someone of stealing someone's stuff out of their bunk or whatever, someone flips out and wants to go home but can't, and on and on and on. Staying at hostels is fine, there's no harm in that, meeting people at hostels is fine, but dear God get out of Dodge and check out the city instead of hanging out out front. I have succumbed to this same impulse before and now I try to avoid it. It is not inevitable. I like to think this is the truth.

I chatted with a few folks in the interest of solidarity, figured out (per usual) that no one was interested in going to eat weird-ass food with me, and shoved off in the direction of supper. Which was conveniently nearby. The mosque was beginning to fill up with worshippers, and rice and dates were beginning to be dispensed out of enormous and steaming vats to the faithful. All the cats in this neighborhood are missing bits of their tails. The men walk by a little too closely, just like in India, and just like in India I put up mental angler-fish spines and they mostly leave me alone. I like to think I am clever and fierce and urbane. This is also probably a fallacy.

Chowhound commanded that I sample some Malay Muslim food, and not being one to deny the hive mind, I made tracks for such. Hjh Maimunah was located quite close to Little India in what appeared to be the Muslim sector of town, and it was rocking after midnight. Ramadan was in full swing and packs of families were chowing down after a long day's fast.

The second discovery I made was that Malay Muslim food is 1. delicious, 2. cheap and 3. plentiful. A rice plate loaded with stuff cost about seven Singapore dollars and was enough to feed at least two of me. I picked out fish in black soy sauce, tripe cooked with coconut milk, sambal greens, dried stir-fried fish (one of my favorites of all time) and some sweet chili sauce on top. Scrumptious.

I committed a horrible sin and began eating with my left hand (suppose to be used for toilet functions, icky as fuck to use for food, you know the rest, but i am left handed, so, you know, it's a dilemma) , but a nice little lady next to me tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at my right hand. Whoops. Thankfully this was all in good fun and we made friends in a sort of broken English way immediately afterwards. A normal looking British guy walked in a few minutes later with a hijabed and ultra traditional looking Malay woman. His wife? What's the story there?

After dinner, I decided to make for the Esplanade and the bay to see what it looked like all lit up at night. This, as always, entailed more walking. I've never felt quite as safe in a darkened and immense city at night as I did in Singapore. It's one of the many benefits of the whole "benevolent dictatorship" thing. I hate to say it, but, well, truth. I ran into the Nigerian team en route, who were attempting to find a place to hail a cab so they could get back to the Olympic Village. I took them under my wing and guided them to the Raffles taxi stand.

Well, I did one good deed that day.

I ended up walking under the hyperactively modernist opera house to get to the Esplanade, finding myself semi-lost in a warren of Mall Mall Mall. I walked by a pack of teenage boys, who watched me coming with big glittery eyes for a moment. "Hello there!" one boy said in a shy voice, and I said something approximating "Good evening" to him in passing since I was intent on my goal. I heard him say behind my back, triumphantly, "See, I talked to her!" to his friends.

I finally got back to the hostel - feet hurting like hell, but happy - and set up my laptop. I began chatting with the professorial looking guy next to me. Turns out he was indeed a professor of anthropology at (of course) Sacramento State University. Lived in Midtown. He was in the city doing research on Wallace - you may know him as Darwin's arch rival - who did a large amount of work in Indonesia (mostly Borneo) and deposited some documents on his evolutionary study and the city's origin in the local archives. A Tamil Indian gent joined the discussion, and we spent the next two hours merrily discussing the fabric of the universe, showing each other pictures of stromatolites and Indonesian and Tamil art, and arguing about the cultural and actual status of women in India, Indonesia, and the USA. I am a hobby evolutionary biologist (what a thing to be) and derived extreme pleasure from talking to someone who actually was one. This would be the upside of hostels.

I then retired to my bunk upstairs at around 2:00 AM. I discovered to my displeasure that the Bollywood club next door did not, in fact, close at 11:30 like nice Bangalore clubs but instead kept rocking all night long. Thankfully, ear plugs and a stuffed whale shark clamped over my face blocked out the noise. I dropped off.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Singapore Introduction

It is hard to condense Singapore, or to introduce it. Singapore is a singularity and Singapore is a familar concept. If we have not been there, we have seen it on TV and probably know a little about it. In simplest terms, Singapore might be called the orderly and gentler counterpart to Hong Kong. Colonized by Britain, cut off from the mainland, and functioning as something very seperate from its host nation, Singapore has distinguished itself as one of the big Asian economic guns, the place to go to make a buck, spend those bucks on food and clothes and real estate, and merrily gamble away aforementioned bucks if you're feeling risky.

Singapore is Asia Light.

Singapore is immense. There's skyscrapers everywhere and all of them are more then equal to what you'll see in US and European cities. Everything is glitzy and flashes with hyper futuristic lights and electronic effects - infinity pools and gigantic glass fronted elevators are everywhere you look. There's no such thing as a standard Singaporean, mind you, and no real conception of what a Singaporean looks like. Indians in dress both traditional and not-so, sun burnt and nervous looking Europeans, Chinese businesswomen in designerwear, Muslim Malays and African tech students and Saudi media moguls, you've got it all and all of it has got you. There are five million people in Singapore and 42% of them are foreigners (if there is such a thing in Singapore). It is the second most densely colonized country on the planet, and is generally considered by most to be the most intensively globalized. The fourth wealthiest country in the world by GDP, Singapore is stringently urban planned and (most remarkably) seems to have achieved almost all of the lofty goals of former P.M Goh Keng Swee. It has the highest quality of life in Asia, and is 11th in the world: it doubtless aspires to be number one.

But Singapore doesn't have the driving, ferocious intensity of Hong Kong, not entirely. Hong Kong is positioned on the side of a hill and has been forced to build up: it is positioned right against (and is now entirely interwined with) the fate of its even more gigantic parent - Hong Kong is on the move and Hong Kong drags you along with it. Singapore is reassuringly flat and can be surprisingly relaxed - you can find yourself in the middle of a warren of skyscrapers and 7-11s and Hainan chicken/rice shops and still see no one much around.

The American financed Sands Casino. A helluva lot bigger then it appears.

Singapore is a chronic case when it comes to over-consumption, be that food or clothes or consumer electronic goods -you name it, they got it, and they got it in spades. But food especially is the primary interest and crown jewel of the city, at least for me. No one seems to cook here. Why the hell would they? There's food stalls satisfying literally every cuisine need on the planet on almost every corner: Mexican and Thai and Hokkien and Keralan, all of it served up on convenient trays in equally convenient (and clean) locations. People are devouring weird shit 25 hours a day here with effusive slurping sounds: you can get anything you want and at any time, according to your particular needs and proclivities. Gigantic mall-sized food courts spring up like mushrooms on every corner: you never see a grocery store, but you see everything else. Fine wine, liquor, and beer are another national obsession: when your nation hosts some of the richest human beings on earth, it pays to invest in fine dining.

Singapore is Asia Light, the Switzerland of Asia - an analogy its leaders freely use and encourage. Singapore takes a lot of what is good about Asia and gives it the Disney treatment, defangs and deodorizes it. Little India is just like India (down to minor details like crumpled coffee cups on the roads and nervous looking and tailless cats), but it is just a little cleaner, just a little more orderly. So too is the rest of Singapore: the scent of dried fish and incense and the every so occasional waft of street side piss reaches you, but vaguely, as if half-remembered. Chewing gum must be purchased at pharmacies as it can create messes. Everyone, radically and insanely in Asia, uses the crosswalk and waits patiently and calmly for the light to change. There's a fine, you see. There are a lot of fines in Singapore.

ISingapore claims to be a parliamentary republic but is actually a benevolent dictatorship: everyone says that and knows it too, and you can just sort of see it in the fabric of Singapore if you squint a little and catch it in the correct light. One political party rules (with 94 congressmen to the opposition's paltry 2), and residents are politely "encouraged" not to associate with opposition party organizers or top brass. But infuriatingly to many Western observers, Singapore's dictatorship seems to be working remarkably well. As previously mentioned, GDP is high, almost everyone has plenty of money, and most residents agree that Singapore has introduced its rules and regulations for good reasons. Certainly Singapore's 200 dollar plus fines for sins such as jay-walking, littering, and tossing away gum has created a remarkably clean and orderly city-state.

But there is a downside and a darkside to all the shiny functionality of Singapore, too. Caning is dished out for a variety of sins (including, in one entirely too famous case, an American ex-pat boy for graffiti). Nearby Malyasia's dual track legal system still allows Muslim women to be whipped for the crime of drinking alcohol or having premarital sex, as examplified by a recent case where a Malyasian Singapore resident and pop star was sentenced to lashes for indulging in a post-show beer. Amnesty International has determined that Singapore has the highest rate of executions in relation to population in the world: drug dealing (a bit loosely defined) and first degree murder attract a mandatory death penalty. (I told this to a guy at my hostel, who had casually been discussing smoking pot the night before. His eyes, I can assure you, got real big).

Singapore is all of these things and is condensed into one immense and addictive city. Singapore really is a bit like a drug: I found myself walking for literally ten hours straight, in a crazed and perhaps poorly advised attempt to see it All in just two full days. Part of my stop off in Singapore was an effort to see if I could, in fact, manage to live there: I think the question has been answered. Of course I could. Singapore, like many big and ever-expanding (like the universe) Asian cities is kinetic, entrancing - you feel like anything is possible and that you can (maybe) have anything you want there if you exert the required effort and skill. This is probably a fallacy: Singapore is not actually a fair place (like the rest of the world) and just being there already indicates that you may, perhaps, have already had a more-then-fair shake at the universe. It has brushed its problems under the table, and so incredibly successfully that you do not notice they are there. Going along with Singapore is not just required: it is eminently pleasant.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Freaky Giant Shark! Tasmanian Tigers! Drag Queens! To Singapore!


Lyn had decided to throw a dinner party for me prior to my departure to Singapore. Mexican food is the cuisine most shamelessly and egregiously butchered in Asia, so we decided to introduce our Australian friends to the wonders of chili, cornbread, taco dip and guacamole. We are kind, kind souls. I got the chili burbling merrily away, shed a single tear at the thought of what passes for "Mexican" food in Asia, and departed with Mike for downtown. The Western Australian Museum awaited.

I'm a total museum nut. Wherever there is one, I'm there. Double plus points are added if the museum is old and has a large collection of stuffed, mounted, or otherwise preserved Dead Critters. The Perth Museum, to my immense personal satisfaction, happens to contain all these happy things and more. It is one of the most enjoyable natural history museums I've seen - they manage to do a lot of interesting things with a not so-huge space. As a North American, it's especially fascinating to see a European or American style museum done up with Australia's pertinent wildlife, historical artifacts, and art. The large and aggressively colonial building also has an air about it that simply screams "IMPORTANT ACTS OF NATURALISM OCCUR HERE," which pleases me inordinately. You simply shouldn't miss it if you're in Perth.

I started with the Room of Bones. As previously mentioned, my lovely cousin Laura is a paleontologist in training, with a particular focus on, well, dead stuff. The girl has a serious and life long affection for bones. I also see the inherent charm and pleasing aspects of Dead Stuff, so was inordinately thrilled with this exhibit. How often do you get to see marsupial bones? And stuffed, mounted marsupials with staring little button eyes, begging you from beyond the grave to please please please don't exterminate my species I will be very sad? Not often, that's what. (And too bad about your species, little furry marsupial thing. Terribly sorry).

I had never seen a Koala skeleton before, and I am willing to place bets that you haven't either (unless you're Australian, which is cheating). It is extremely funny looking and a bit unnerving. Just like koalas.

God, screw koalas.

The museum had a superb butterfly exhibit, which I stared at in complete kaleidoscopic awe for a good long while.

I am usually politely ambivalent to butterflies, but an entire wall of the things - and Australia does some funny looking specimens - was completely striking.

I could photograph these all day.

This is a Tasmanian Tiger, which I am entirely certain none of you have ever seen before. This is because, of course, they are almost certainly extinct. The Thylacine was once Australia's biggest surviving marsupial predator, and, prior to the arrival of humanity about 60,000 years ago, ranged all over the continent. Aboriginal people and their dingos eventually pushed them back onto the island of Tasmania, where they lived in relative prosperity and comfort (for a carnivorous marsupial).

This all went straight to hell when European settlers arrived in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The Thylacine was regarded as a nuisance predator and a menace to sheep (and made for a lovely rug), and was wiped out with remarkable speed and efficiency by modern weaponry. Some were kept and bred successfully in zoos, but the species's downfall occurred rapidly and in a time not particularly moved by conservationist concerns: they were extinct by 1936.

In the 1930s, video footage was taken of the last Thylacine, which provides us with an eery and almost unbearably poignant window into the past. The final one died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936. Among the animal's interesting adapations was a backwards facing pouch (like the wombat) and a remarkably widely opening jaw, as can be seen in the video. They also possessed the ability to perform a bipedal "hop" in the manner of the kangaroo, and could stand on two legs for a long period of time. They often communicated in reasonably dog-like barks or yips, and possessed a much more mild and retiring attitude then its bad-ass cousin, the Tasmanian Devil.

Some vague hope remains that the Thylacine may still be slinking around remote bits of Tasmania. It's not entirely impossible - if there's anywhere where things can go undiscovered for a terrifically long time, it's Australia - but it's definitely unlikely. Sightings are registered on a quite regular basis, and are written up at this vastly interesting website. I myself am trying hard to keep the dream alive.

I read that comparative anatomy professors enjoy tossing in a thylacine skull with a dog skull in exams, just to catch people. There are minor differences. Laura could probably tell. I sure as hell could not.

The Perth Museum possesses, to my extreme nerdy delight, a mummified Thylacine body. It was found in a cave on the mainland in WA and is thus over 3,000 (4,700 is probable) years old - that's the date when the species was pushed back to Tasmania by introduced dogs. It's a fascinating thing to look at. That is perhaps the greatest appeal of Australia to me and to other zoology inclined minds. Nowhere else provides so many fantastic windows into the past.

HOLY CRAP IT'S A CARNOTAURUS. This was a fantastic display, especially because it made extremely loud roaring and stomping sounds, scaring the ever loving crap out of any nearby children. Note the highly realistic ribbon of drool.

The Murchison Meteorite. Does not derive, sadly, from Western Australia's Smallest Meteroite Crater, which we almost decided to drive out to see, but then suddenly regained our sanity. Meteorites please me, especially the notion that they ever so occasionally whang innocent old ladies upside the head.

Here, have a sign. It'll interpret shit.

There was a great display of traditional Aboriginal foods. Here's a tasty repast. Wichetty grubs, local fruits, and some delicious, juicy Quokka. Actually, I am willing to bet that quokka tastes awesome. Adorable fluffy things almost always do.

IT'S STROMATOLITES! BACK AND BETTER THEN EVER! Well, not doing much at all really.

Yes, it's another Eurypterid. They make my heart go pitter-pat. I think I would probably marry a guy who just presented me with a slab with one of these puppies in it instead of a ring.

Might be hard to wear, though.

The museum has a fantastic Aboriginal gallery, which pays due (and longly awaited) attention to the horrifying treatment Australia's natives recieved at the hands of European interlopers. It's also a great introduction to the incredible continuity of culture the Aborigines enjoy (or, uh, enjoyed). The Aborigines have been in Australia for upwards of 60,000 years and can boast the oldest continuous culture on earth. Some speculate that their religion, art, and beliefs is indicative of what all of our ancestors believed at the very beginning of things. Pleasant to think about, innit it?

I was particularly drawn to these "cave" Wandjina paintings, which illustrate ancestral beings of the Western Kimberley. The eyes are eery. These images now crop up occasionally in graffiti all over Australia. Avid conspiracy theorists (like our friend from Cervantes) may note they look a lot like the "Grey" aliens that so dearly love to probe retired desert dwellers. Far out, man.

Here, have a sign.

The crown jewel of the museum is definitely what I casually refer to as the Freaky Giant Shark. Which is an entirely accurate moniker for the thing. It is in fact a Megamouth shark specimen preserved in some sort of formaldyhyde compound. For reasons presumably known only to the museum, it has thoughtfully been plonked down in a tank outside.

There aren't any signs pointing this out.. To actually see it you must be 1. the type of person who is exceedingly committed to seeing a freaky giant shark and will do research and ask around, or 2. the type of person who will wander with a cup of coffee through the grounds, poke your head into a small outbuiliding, look down, and go, "Christ, look at that giant freaky shark!". It was a very satisfying experience, I must say. The Megamouth is one of only a few specimens preserved for human viewing, and it's a rare freaky giant shark indeed. There's a leaky looking crack in the glass that covers it, but this does not seem to concern anyone much. They'll be sorry when the shark comes back to life and devours half the city, won't they be?

These deeply offputting critters were only discovered in 1976, and have occasionally shown up on beaches since. They also show up occasionally in Asian fisherman's nets, leading to comical situations wherein scientists desperately attempt to photograph or preserve the specimen, while aforementioned fishermen calmly hack the flesh up and sell it for the stock pot. (Presumably megamouth tastes at least decent.) They're completely harmless to humans, surviving entirely on plankton and jellyfish. They are also among the planet's laziest feeders, preferring to float along in the deep ocean with their mouth open, hoping stuff will swim in. I wish I could do that.

After the museum, Mike and I decided to make like a Megamouth and acquire some food, preferably in as lazy a fashion as possible. We finally settled on a sushi place and tucked into some sashimi. The restaurant's outside eating area just so happened to be a front row seat to the Australian Sex Party rally occurring in the downtown square. The rally was helpfully supplied with a lip-syncing drag queen in a flamenco dress and a profusion of people in bondage pants, mohawks, and other "punk" clothing items that are just a few years past uncool in the USA. Bless their hearts.

Aussie elections are going on right now, you see, and they are entirely too complex for me to even attempt to explain (nor, I suspect, would anyone care). Apparently everyone is compelled by law to vote, and also gets TWO votes - first choice, second choice. This allows room for things like the Sex Party. The rally particularly addressed the issue of same sex marriage, which seems to be up for the voters this go round. I do hope it passes. Us dysfunctional Californians finally did it after much sturm und drang, after all. Aussies better step up. The rally did perfectly illustrate what is so pleasant about Perth. It is safe, clean, attractive, and functional, and it is also perfectly willing to host Sex Party rallys, drag queen shows, and all matter of tomfoolery in its public civic areas. How decent. How lovely. It's almost enough to make you want to spit.

I headed back to the apartment for a nap, figuring that it would do to get all the sleep I possibly could prior to touching down in Singapore. Furthermore, I wanted to be on my game for the dinner party. I had lots of guacamole to make.

Lyn's lovely friends came over soon enough, and we dished out guacamole, chili, and incredibly delicious New Zealand wine. My flight left at 12:00 midnight, so I attempted to fortify myself with spicy food. I can think of few nicer ways to say goodbye to an entire continent then with copious amounts of tasty food and wine. There were even mini ice cream cones. My God.

Lyn makes a startlingly good (and bad for you) corn pudding.

We toddled off to the airport (to use an Aussieism Lyn has ferociously adopted) and sat around in the airport for a while, marveling over the remarkable price of Australian books. I finally said a tearful (not really) goodbye to Lyn, shouldered my bag and accompanying whaleshark/pillow, and headed off to Singapore. After being forced to go through security three different times due to offending gel products (which I had packed according to American standards, although THIS IS NOT AMERICA the ever so pleased security guard informed me), I got on the plane. Which no one was on. Economy first class it was, with an entire row to myself. Slept the sleep of death.