Singapore is clean and green. A relief from Bangkok. The road from the airport is a boulevard, an allee with mature flame trees, flowerless now, to be sure, in this rainy season. Palm trees line the median. Everywhere it is rainforest lush. It is also the season of frequent afternoon and early-evening thunderstorms.
The city itself is clean and orderly and efficient. In Bangkok getting through immigration took 45 minutes. In Singapore, 5. This is the Singapore where the immigration form issued on the plane reads: “Warning: Death for drug traffickers under Singapore law.” Here there are steep fines for littering, for jaywalking. Chewing gum is prohibited; (we looked – they don’t even sell it in the 7/11.) People stand behind designated lines on the subway platform and allow disembarking passengers to, well, disembark without pushing.
I feel like I have to tiptoe here. And it gladdens my heart to find, in an underground passageway, a place where clots of teenagers hang out. They practice intricate hip hop moves to beats from tinny boom boxes. They yell and laugh; the melancholy play guitars cross-legged and watch. They ignore the no-skateboarding signs. They leave food wrappers about. But absolutely no graffiti tattoos any wall. Above ground, the only other sign of slight disorder is the drying wash hung like banners from poles from the balconies of the deliberately- integrated, clean, and ugly-hued public housing buildings.
Interesting how this polyglot city comes together easily. Signage comes by government mandate in a quatrain of English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. On the subway, I eavesdrop on adolescent gossip that dips in and out of English. When I turn around to see their faces, I’m surprised that one of the girls is Chinese, another Malaysian, the other Eurasian.
Sign in Malay, Tamil, English, Mandarin
We cram our 3 days here. We visit the historic Raffles Hotel where the Singapore Sling was invented. I don’t knock one back — too sugary, I assume. But, I genuflect in the Writers Bar where Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling allegedly hung out. In the evening we hop on a tram and cruise through the dark on a night safari accompanied by a Disney-chirpy narrator. The exotic animals ignore us, really. The lions, the tigers barely looked up, deer, aloof giraffes look past us, hyenas put on a fightfest for us, bullfrogs give stereod bass choruses.
Next day we visit the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple in the heart of a pristine Chinatown (yes, Chinatown.) We buy beautifully embroidered linens in Little India, we eat Turkish food a pebble’s throw away from the spectacular Sultan Mosque on Arab Street. We sweat through the extraordinarily lovely National Orchid Garden. We go to Sentosa Island by cable car way too damn high over forest and water. We admire giant species of butterflies; we walk through an acrylic tunnel and watch sharks, stingrays, thick-lipped fishes swim overhead. We endure the cartoony Musical Fountain – Dance of Fire and Water Show, while we get soaked by a sudden hard rain.
The next day we cruise and try to photograph the colorful shophouses built by early Chinese immigrants on the south side of the River because it resembled the concaved belly of a carp – a guarantee of wealth and prosperity. Comfortable on the boat, we admired the contrast of the restored godowns with the towering skyscrapers, lazed briefly. For, mercy, there’s so much more to see, to do. We visit the financial center; we admire an outdoor Botero, an unexpected Dali sculpture in a courtyard. We walk and walk.
And through it all, my feet are pieces of raw meat. My camera hisses, Woman, put me down. The waist of my loose slacks? Not so loose anymore. Way different for me, too, that I could actually be looking forward to resting on the marathon flight home. We leave Singapore at 8 AM and arrive in San Francisco at 9 AM on the same day. Yaaay, for business class. Our first.