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.

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