Singapore – January 2015

Little India, Singapore

Little India, Singapore

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

And so our first month in Singapore is over… We have grown to appreciate that city life has benefits and disadvantages – both of which are a novel experience.

Geoff has enjoyed working abroad again in a different culture with its various challenges and opportunities. Commuting to the office every day with 200,000 other overheated people on the subway has not been so enjoyable, I suspect 😉

For one who wasn’t 100% convinced that I wanted to abandon my career for 4 months to head out for unknown pastures to a city I had not even considered as a potential vacation destination never mind a short term abode, I have to say, I do love it…. in parts … and more particularly, if and when, the sun shines 😉 :-).

It has been an absolute blast grabbing the map, my notes from endless hours of internet research, my MRT pass (the MRT is the cheapest, cleanest, most user friendly and efficient subway system on the planet) …and a pin – to stick in said map – and head out to explore a new area each day.

My purpose for each day’s research was not (despite Geoff’s suspicions) an in-depth study of Singapore’s coffee and cake shops, but instead, to map out routes for guiding him around the city in a seamless tour of its 4 corners at the weekends and evenings.

So, barely a minute wasted, I have diligently wandered the streets morning, noon and (sometimes) night in my task, returning only when I was simply too hot, tired and sweaty to stagger any further and would retreat instead to the cooling waters of the rooftop pool at our apartment.

It is undeniably warm here. We arrived in December to a torrential monsoon type downpour which left the skies grey and miserable for the first 2 days… I was beginning to resent having left my beautiful sunny, blue skied, floridian winter for the dark, humid, rainy misery of a Singaporean Northeast Monsoon season. This was compounded by my constant checking and dwelling upon the awful online weather forecasts.

However, by the third day I saw a glimmer of hope – the sun came out (and stayed out) and all was beautiful (mostly), albeit still on the hotter side of warm. I realized I was witnessing somewhat of a weather pattern… blue sky and sunshine all day until 4pm or 5pm then a torrential downpour (a la Florida in the summer) and then a nice evening…. and repeat….This could well be fine after all, I comforted myself …..

Having ascertained this, it was obvious that if I wanted to get any fresh air from being stuck in an air conditioned apartment – a world away from our outdoors floridian lifestyle – I would have do it in the morning and early afternoon and get back before the deluge flooded the streets and sidewalks and I wrecked another pair of shoes ;-).

As another few days passed without bothering to check the forecast (which I had already gleaned was always wrong) it became clear that even the anticipated daily downpours were drying up and, although the temperatures were beginning to reach 90F every day (with a heat index of 94F) and the humidity was high, it was actually quite bearable with light breezes and puffy white clouds. Most fortuitously, it was not at all hard to cool down by darting into one of the gazillion ubiquitous malls to enjoy the benefits of their free air conditioning. That said, we have 10 floridian summers of intensive heat survival training under our belts and I suspect that many people coming from drier and/or cooler climes would probably not embrace the Singaporean climate with quite the same relative enthusiasm.

So long as it doesn’t get too relentlessly grey and miserable again during the remainder of our few months here, I could perhaps contemplate living in this climate for a slightly longer period… but don’t tell Geoff because I really miss our furry children …. ;-).

On this note, whilst I was exploring the length and breadth of the city one day, fortified by latte and a large slice of Gula Melaka cake ;-), I made an interesting discovery whilst pottering through Boat Quay (a busy restaurant area close to the business district down by the Singapore river). The Cat Cafe :-). For the princely sum of $12 SGD an hour – other sad and lonely part-time ex-pats (like me) – deprived of their furry friends back from whence they came – can enjoy a delightful time stroking, bonding and playing with 13 fabulously gorgeous resident kitties. Tears sprung to my kitty-deprived eyes when I found the cafe – as I am sure they will also do to Geoff’s when he checks the MasterCard bill at the end of the month 😉 ….. unfortunately, I also found another cat cafe in the Arab Quarter where I spent most of my spare time.

Most interestingly, wandering this one (reasonably small) city has been a thrilling escape to various world destinations without actually having to leave the shores of Singapore at all. Aside from the more obvious glamours of the skyscrapers of the Central Business District and the lovely waterfront promenade with spectacular views of the skyline at Marina Bay, the most interesting parts of this city are its weird and wonderful foreign community enclaves – Little India, Chinatown and Kampung Glam, the Arab Quarter :-).

Our absolutely favorite suburb is Kampung Glam, a largely Malayan Moslem enclave with several square blocks of Arabic traders. The original village expanded outwards from the Sultan Mosque and the restored shophouses on Arab Street, Bali Lane and Haji Lane are filled with batik, swathes of silk and lace fabric, baskets and Turkish restaurants with blue-tiled tables. It’s small but fabulous. If we were ever to find time or the inclination to actually do any clothes shopping in Singapore it would be in Haji Lane which is overflowing with great boutique stores. Most importantly, our (my!) favorite coffee and cake shop is there too – Shop Wonderland :-).

Little India is similarly enthralling – wandering the alleys and shops with the sometimes overwhelming smell of heat and chaos and spices. I cannot confirm or otherwise, but Geoff tells me this place is very authentic – maybe I will have no need to travel to India and can now safely avoid contracting some ghastly sub-tropical medical complaint ;-). More likely, it has made the prospect of going there even more enticing!

We visited the busy but serene Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple with its stunning colorful carvings and adornments and watched Hindu worshippers busily performing their various rituals.

Something unexpected can be seen at every street corner in Little India – a shrine to Ganesh the Elephant God presiding over a fruit and vegetable stall; ornately painted and decorated buildings and arcades; strains of Bollywood dance music can be heard drifting from store fronts; elegant women drift by in swishing saris with twinkling sequins and beads; gold jewelry stores dazzle; fruit and veg markets are filled with produce we have never seen before; the chaotic “wet market” where you have to wade through puddles of water used to swoosh down the fish stalls all day long; dried food shops filled with delicious smelling spices; the scent of jasmine filling the air around the stalls selling intricate handmade floral garlands – tiny flowers and buds entwined with gold and red ribbon and leaves; and tailor shops filled with all manner of exotica – silks, saris and multi-colored fabrics.

Another of our favorite places to wander aimlessly is the Marina Bay promenade in the morning when the light on the skyscrapers is dazzling. The area is well-known for it’s modern architecture – not to everyone’s taste but undeniably striking – the lotus flower shaped Art Science Museum with its colorful lily ponds, the Helix Bridge – the world’s first pedestrian double helix curved bridge, the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay reminiscent of 2 spiky squatting hedgehogs or 2 half pineapples – as Geoff observed 😉 , the bizarre futuristic (I do hope not!) Gardens by the Bay with its (amongst other things) 16 story high Supertrees. Whatever the designer of the “Supertree” was smoking it must have been really good ;-).

The horizon of the Marina Bay area is dominated by the simply enormous looming towers of the 5 star $5 billion SGD casino-resort hotel for the well-heeled – Marina Bay Sands Hotel. The 3 towers are crowned by a 3 acre tropical park and infinity pool for swimming (almost literally) in the sky :-).

We are not quite sure why we weren’t housed there for our stay … perhaps we can put in a request for our return in March ;-).

As it is, we live very close to the (also) relatively upmarket area of Orchard Road – literally 20 paces from our apartment – a shopping mecca. Orchard Road is famous for its mind-bogglingly huge malls – 22 of them. If I loved mall shopping I would be in shoppers heaven but I prefer either a) no shopping at all or b) unexpected finds in small unobtrusive boutiques. Still, the architecture is impressive particularly at night when the malls are lit with colored lights. Some malls are more like night-clubs although the booming music blares from the sliding entrance doors at all hours of the morning, noon and night – which makes us feel quite old ;-).

Interspersed with the modern glass mall extravaganzas there are also pockets of older world charm such as Peranakan Place with its attractive bars, and Emerald Hill. Only a few paces from the crazy, frenetic, noisy nightlife on Orchard Road, Emerald Hill is a street of gorgeous restored terrace houses in the Chinese Baroque style with shutters, ornate shiny ceramic gutters and shady seating areas decorated with pot plants.

On the other hand, we aren’t quite as keen on Clarke Quay – a concrete and plastic jungle with all the appeal of a fairground at a cheap seaside resort – replete with a Hooters Sports Bar… ;-).

Some things are odd here … some places seems to have missed the plot: a reflecting pool with nothing reflected in it (quite an achievement!); there is a cute looking coffee shop in a park only steps from our apartment – with a display rack for delicious delicacies but never any cake actually on display … did they fundamentally miss the point of coffee being a liquid intended solely to absorb and negate the calorific content of a 1000 calorie slice of carrot cake?; there is also a great restaurant/bar conservation project of a former church close by – Chijmes – now a beautiful courtyard with the restored white church as centerpiece – but a tragic array of mediocre restaurants and bars around it – seems a bit of a wasted opportunity….

And then there is Chinatown, of course! Resplendent in fabulous color and lanterns which we always love – still, it is difficult to imagine any self respecting Chinese person actually parting with hard earned money in any of the trinket market stalls. The only people we ever saw in Chinatown (as opposed to some of the more authentic residential Chinese areas) were other tourists in amongst the piles of plastic mass produced junk. However, even we would have imagined that the Chinese Gate would be made of something more solid than hardboard – seriously, people?!

The Chinese New Year markets are a different story – busy all day with Chinese families buying New Year house decorations and gifts – the stalls are filled with beautiful decorated red envelopes which are given with gifts of money.

On any street corner, one might see silver or red tin burners with groups of worshippers rolling up gilded papers wrapped with red ribbon, throwing them into the flames and sending up a prayer.

And of course, fabulous golden Buddha effigies abound throughout the city – each one surrounded with burning incense and donations of food and drink……anything from cans of Coke to bottles of water, and from oranges to slices of cake….

Dotted all over Singapore there are wonderful pagodas and temples where the air is filled with the smell of smoking incense and the buildings are spectacles of color and craftsmanship….favorites are Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Wak Hei Cheng Temple.

Bugis has a thriving Chinese community and the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple was chaotically busy at any time of day. With the approach of the Chinese New Year in February, it seemed that some of the Buddhist temples were getting busier towards the end of January with a constant stream of office workers at lunchtime. A fascinating place, I could observe quietly from the shadows for hours as devotees performed their various rituals. Before they entered the temple, worshippers would hold 3 lit incense sticks (or a bunch of flowers) between their palms against their foreheads. They would bow 3 times in the direction of the temple, then turn to the right and then the left repeating this until they had bowed in all 4 directions. When it was very busy at the temple the smell of incense was almost overpowering. Then the sticks would be thrown into a bronze tub to fizzle out. Others would be kneeling on the floor, shaking sticks in a round container until one fell out, others were busily sending up prayers….

The Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple is surrounded by a bright, colorful marketplace of traders selling flowers, rolls of yellow prayer papers with gold foil wrapped in red ribbon, and incense sticks to the devout entering the temple.

Of the weekends we actually spent “at home” in Singapore each one turned into a (vegetarian) pig-fest at the restaurants which weren’t serving Chinese gloop. I say this with the conviction that anyone who is a fan of anglicized or americanized Chinese restaurants in the west would unlikely be a fan of “real” native Chinese food ;-). Luckily, we began to learn that there were a plethora of other food options to test out – in an average single weekend in our favorite parts of town we could (and usually did! 😉 ) enjoy Peranakan, Thai, French, Indian, American, Asian fusion, Indonesian and Turkish – in one form or another.

On or first weekend, poor Geoff got very excited about a trip out to a suburb, Simei, where his parents used to live with him as a toddler when his father was in the Royal Air Force in the late 60’s. He was hoping his former abode was still there – which seemed a long shot. It transpired that the former services quarters have undergone something of a transformation – his former home had obviously been flattened and somebody wealthy had built a multi-million $SGD state of the art house on it…but the “playground” of his youth was still there – a storm drain outside of the house …. looked like a biological hazard waste ground to me but he was very excited about it… bless… 😉

We also pottered about in some of the lesser touristy visited residential areas – Katong was another contradictory mix – largely Moslem with halal markets and a hawker centre but every other shophouse on the main street was a night club or karaoke bar.

We had some fun nights out – meeting up with an old friend of Geoff’s who has lived here for years; finding an unexpected light and music show at Marina Bay at night (I guess I hadn’t done my research well enough as “Wonder Full” seems to be on in all its multi-faceted glory every night!); wandering the busy bars and cafes in Kampung Glam…. wondering how to re-finance the mortgage after the unbelievably horrendous bar bill for 3 drinks at a trendy new bar “Long Play” where you could lope around pretentiously on leather sofas and recliners listening to a DJ playing jazz LP’s; my choices of restaurants weren’t always popular – I kept forgetting that the Indonesian ones were Moslem and whenever we walked in and the other patrons were dressed head to foot in black burkhas we knew Geoff would not be enjoying a glass of wine with dinner 😉 … luckily I managed to make up for some of my inadvertent mistakes with offerings of interesting after-dinner bars instead 😉 …Geoff’s favorite became Bar Stories – a hole in the wall hidden away on the top floor of a shophouse in the Arab Quarter in Haji Lane – no menus, just 2 guys with a lot of imagination and creativity – tell them the flavors you like, they ask a few questions and then they knock up a masterpiece, decorate it with inverted lime skins, twigs and berries and set fire to it 😉

Life in an apartment as opposed to the sort of indoor/outdoor lifestyle we enjoy in Florida has had it’s ups and downs. It really isn’t for us – too much like living in a gilded cage….cut off from the world but you can still see it all going on in the streets below. And by the same token, the biggest bonus is, of course, that the city is literally at our feet – the MRT station is all of a 2 minute walk and thereafter the whole of Singapore is at our disposal.

The advantage of apartment living rather than living out of our suitcases in hotels for 4 months are, however, priceless – the main ones being the achievement of some sense of normality, as opposed to being a homeless itinerant and the opportunity to stay fit(ish!) and healthy(ish!).

We have a tiny kitchen where I can still attempt to cook – albeit that there is a miserable selection of organic fruit and veg here and what can be located on the local supermarket shelves is limp, shipped in from afar (often from back home!) and 5 times the price of the US (we really miss our Sarasota organic farmers market 😦 ). Many of the vegetables have exotic and unpronounceable names and we really don’t know what to do with them so we just eat everything raw and keep our fingers crossed …. ;-).

Surprisingly, food has been a little bit of a problem here. Generally speaking the supermarkets are filled with lots of horrendous looking packaged, dehydrated food “products” and very little that we would actually want to consume. No crops are grown in Singapore so food appears to be imported mainly from Malaysia, China (yikes) or the US.

Not being fans of Chinese cuisine (I use the term generously 😉 ) doesn’t really help as 75% of the population in Singapore is Chinese, as a result, oriental food tends to dominate the restaurant and supermarket scene.

My first rhetorical question upon being sent out to buy food supplies from the local supermarket – “Surely Singapore has better than the inappropriately named FairPrice chain to offer?” 😉 – remained pretty much the same during our residence…. I could, I suppose, have taken the subway to one of the wet markets in Chinatown or Little India but really I couldn’t be bothered to drag my weekly supplies (hot and sweaty across town) all the way home on the train… life is so different here from life in the US and the UK where we have the luxury of cars for every aspect of our existence.

On the matter of the local supermarket, it also took only one excursion to “FairPrice” to learn that asking for assistance was entirely fruitless. My first request fell upon deaf ears (either that or I was ignored – which is highly likely!) and my second and final attempt to elicit help – a request for the location of a tub of hummus was similarly unsuccessful. I was doubtful from the start to be honest but as this is a multi-cultural society I still clung to a glimmer of hope. However, this fairly innocuous question was greeted with a look of absolute disdain and bafflement – “Hoomos?.. what is?”…. “It’s like a paste made with chickpeas” I answered … “Naw” was the sneered venomous response… followed by a glare and determined concentration on continuing to re-arrange the non-organic apples in a huge pile rather than having to engage with the irritating foreigner any further ;-).

I scuttled away wondering if I might have committed some embarrassing cultural faux-pas.

Had I asked for pigs eyeballs or processed balls of chicken fat I would perhaps have received a happy smile and been pointed in vaguely the right direction….not that I would have needed any guidance as I had already spotted the vast selection of disgusting fatty balls next to the largest refrigerated container of Tofu known to man – apparently it comes in all shapes, sizes and configurations… pity we don’t eat that either 😉 !

Other benefits of apartment living – washing facilities (yippee – because dragging my undies to a launderette for months on end wasn’t going to wash… so to speak 😉 …)… but not exactly state of the art drying facilities so that the apartment looks like a chinese laundry most nights.

A gym (woefully inadequate compared to that at home in Florida) … but, on the upside, a challenging, mainly uphill, (and rarely down dale) 3 mile run in our local park every other evening. Fort Canning Park may well kill us both in the heat and humidity of a Singapore winter 😉 but we return from our runs the color of beetroots convinced that it MUST be good for us …. and …. even if it isn’t, it is a beautiful park full of exotic trees and shrubs, great views over the city, strange jungly creature noises at dusk, a labyrinth of confusing paths and many, many, many steep staircases ;-).

Luckily, Mr Slowcoach has only lost me once – and I won’t bound off again in future without checking to see where the lazy lump has got to 😉 I had to run round the perimeter of the labyrinth twice as it was beginning to get dangerously dark with no idea where I was, looking for him. Eventually, by some miraculous skyscraper “map” reading and both taking an educated guess as to where we might potentially meet if this sort of thing happened, we did eventually bump into each other and staggered home exhausted as we had both clocked up double miles running round in circles in the opposite direction away from each other ;-).

Some day-trips “out of the city” – that means anything around 15 minutes by subway from wherever you live – were a little less exciting than exploring the city itself. Such as, the Southern Ridges – hot, sweaty and nowhere near as lovely as I had expected from my copious and clearly inaccurate research. I suspect that those unlucky enough not to get out into the “real” wilderness too often are simply happy for the break from the downtown skyscrapers and tiny overcrowded apartments. In reality the Ridges is just a meandering paved pathway through some trees with intermittent views of concrete garden (city apartment blocks as far as the eye can see) and a pedestrian bridge called Henderson Waves made up of 7 undulating steel ribs and a dark wooden deck (for maximum heat retention which is ideal in this climate 😉 ) which garners far more attention in reviews than it actually justifies…hmmm…..

The Botanic Gardens were considerably more attractive but, again, way too hot and sweaty by the time we dragged ourselves over there and around it. More motivated to try out some of the cafes and restaurants in Dempsey Hill close to the Botanic Garden than continue to perspire inelegantly around the Gardens (surrounded by the noisy kids of a thousand equally sweaty day-trippers with picnics) we grabbed a cab and headed off starving hungry to PS Cafe which I had read wondrous things about.

Dempsey Hill is a former restored British army base from the colonial era – refurbished and re-identified as trendy bars, cafes, restaurants and stores….. a very appealing place to chill out on a Sunday afternoon (if you have the time and energy to wait an hour and a half for a table when you are starving to death). Good job the sticky date pudding with toffee sauce at PS Cafe was worth the wait or I might have been in trouble for insisting we join the Sunday brunch line ;-).

And, of course, any weekend involving walking for more than 10 minutes invariably ended with the obligatory Chinese foot massage as Geoff can’t seem to manage a whole day on his feet without insisting that he can stagger no further without one. They were, as always, exemplary, but it would usually end with me screaming silently into an umbrella gritted between my teeth as my balding reflexologist (with no english language skills whatsoever) grimaced sweetly at me from time to time with his toothy grin as he dug his fingers deeper into my calves. I am sure he only broke concentration long enough to glance up periodically to check to see whether I had actually passed out or not ;-).

Still, no pain, no gain and we always walked out from a decent session of Chinese torture on cushions of air :-).

We shall miss them as we head off into the freezing wintery weather of Tokyo….

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