I viewed this stopover as part of my four day long journey home, but Singapore is unique enough to warrant an entry of its own. Walking through the 'spairport', I couldn't help but smile at how I saw these exact sites only two months ago, at the very beginning of my SE Asia adventure, at that time having a very different perspective. This time, however, I was determined to put that entry visa to a good use and make it beyond the airport terminal.
During the cab ride to the hotel, I was amazed at just how green the city is. I'm not talking about parks punctuating a concrete jungle, what I'm referring to are old mossy trees lining the roads, trees surrounding every one of its modern towers, green everywhere. It seemed like architectural computer simulations were super-imposed on a tropical forest.
I think this was the first time ever that I consulted an encyclopedia-type source for what the official language of a country is, so improbable were the highly Anglo-Saxon street names I saw in this tiny island country sandwiched between Malaysia and Indonesia. Sure I knew about its British history, but if the impossible-to-pronounce Native American names could survive much longer Anglo-Saxon influence in the US, surely there should be streets around reflecting the country's equatorial whereabouts better than 'Orchard Road' or 'Scotts Road'?..
Given the hotel manager's warning that this is the middle of the monsoon season, and that the day before it rained non-stop, I decided to keep my afternoon venture outdoors flexible and walked over to Orchard Road, which is notorious for its shopping malls. As much as I intended to eschew those shopping malls, the next wave of tropical rain arrived just as I was approaching the first of them, leaving me little choice but to go in. As soon as I entered, I was greeted by, of all things, a makeshift salsa class! I momentarily considered the need to brush up on my basic step before I head back to Miami, but gave myself an out under the excuse that 'Singapore salsa' might not be quite the same as 'Miami salsa'.
I spent the next couple of hours on Orchard Rd's crowded sidewalks and stores, occasionally pummeled by rain. The city is very well planned out, as obvious from little details such as under-ground crosswalks. As bizarre as the mixture of tropical trees, top-notch modern buildings and British street names was, the mix of people seemed even more unexpected. There were the Chinese-looking folks, the Indian-looking ones, women covered according to the muslim dress code and Westerners dressed with no regard for such. Given the post-modern setting, I at one point felt that I was in one of those sci-fi movies where the world is ruled by inter-galactic counsel and 'diversity' takes on a whole new meaning.
Next day, I woke up to the absolutely dreary weather outside. The sky was completely grey, and from my 18th floor hotel room, it seemed that the town was fully enveloped in rain. It was an exercise in willpower to get myself to abandon the comfort of the hotel in favor of the soaking rain outside. Once I made it outside, however, the day turned into a wonderful experience. I roamed all around town, taking in its waterfront, then taking a ride on the observation wheel (which claims to be the largest in the world).
I then meandered through the maze of shopping malls towards the Arab Quarter. The one thing I had hoped to find there was hookah/sheeshah/nargilah, and I smelled it before I saw it, from a block away. It's been almost 2 months since I smoked my last one, in Hanoi, and I was ready to indulge myself once more. As I was sitting there, puffing my well-put-together sheeshah at a Turkish restaurant in the middle of Singapore, I notice that my authentic Arabic tea-with-mint-leaves actually comes in Russian packaging:
The only other thing on the agenda for this late afternoon was to see the building marked with a Star of David on my map, which I expected to be the city's synagogue. When I showed up there, however, I was told by an oh-so-polite yet oh-so-firm guard that the synagogue has just closed to visitors for the day. He just about succeeded convincing me that I'm out of luck when I spotted a couple of guys in kippot approaching the compound. I used my internationally tried-and-true method of starting up a conversation in Hebrew, which worked this time as well -- though I didn't get to see the inside of the main synagogue, I got a personal tour o the compound. Apparently the building of the synagogue dates back to 1878, and the congregation predated it by some 40 years. Though historically a sfaradi community, it now has about a thousand Israelis or all backgrounds among its members, and another thousand of other members.
My overall impression of Singapore is of a very dynamic bustling center of commerce. I couldn't help but feel that this is precisely the kind of vibe and cultural cross-polination that made other famed city-states throughout centuries into the commercial powers that they were. If I had to pick a business-friendly base in Asia, I would certainly consider Singapore. This was a good note to end my Asian adventure on, and ease myself into life back in civilization.
I plan to post two more entries to this blog in the upcoming days -- one, my overall thoughts on this 3-month adventure from a personal standpoint, and the other, some practical tips for traveling in SE Asia.