When I found out my friend Amanda would be in Singapore in June to visit her dad, I thought it would be a good excuse to meet up and check out a place I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise. That evolved into her (and her dad) generously offering for me to stay with them. I knew Singapore was safe and surgery-grade clean, but beyond that I was pretty clueless, so I looked forward to seeing it from a local’s point of view. Once my dates were set, I found out my little cousin would be in Singapore the week before I planned to arrive. Ok, I could come in early, spend a few nights in a hotel, and see her on her last night. Cool. Then I reconnected with my freshman year roommate (through Facebook, of course) who has been living in Singapore for the last five years. This was shaping up to be a productive trip! And finally I learned that a former Kiva fellow who I kept in touch with would be doing two months of his MBA program in Singapore… conveniently during my visit. Suddenly my Singapore dance card was full.
Let me just say that Singapore is NOT cheap, causing me to break one of my lodging rules: I don’t do dorms or share bathrooms. Adler Hostel was somewhat of a compromise as it was billed as an upscale hostel. The room had 12 or so beds, but they were like little cubbies with a curtain and storage inside so it was reasonably private and surprisingly quiet. Better than an ill-located cheap hotel. It was right in Chinatown, and near the MRT so I could easily get around.
The first night I met my cousin at a hawker stall and was horrified at what I encountered. Tiger beer, which is FROM Singapore and ubiquitous in Southeast Asia, was more expensive in Singapore than in any other place I’d been. It was $4.50/can. Despite the shock to my wallet, I had a nice dinner with my cousin before she hopped a plane back home the next day.
I met Lisa, my former college roommate, at an MRT stop two days later. We couldn’t figure out exactly how long it had been since we’d seen each other, but settled on somewhere around 12-15 years. She looked exactly the same and we picked right up where we left off. Lisa moved to Singapore with her husband five years ago for his job, and they have an 18-month-old son. It was great to see her and catch up over dim sum, but we weren’t quite finished, so she invited me to her house for dinner a few days later where I met her husband and son. We drank wine and ate homemade fried chicken while her husband prodded me about Lisa: the college years. It was great fun, and such a joy to see her after so long!
Former Kiva Fellow Alex and I met for dinner one night, and then again the next day to visit the Botanic Gardens. He sniffed out the perfect restaurant based on rumors they had relatively cheap wine, and boy did he deliver. At Wine Connection in Robinson Quay we paid $30 for a bottle of French red- brilliant!! In the land of $15 beer pints, this was a true find. And the food- oh the food! We had foie gras (I know, it’s not very PC) which was AH-mazing, along with a cheese platter, wood-fired pizza and grilled veggie salad. My cheese and wine cravings were temporarily sated.
The Botanic Gardens were beautifully manicured with hardly a rogue leaf underfoot. It perfectly represented Singapore in all of its pristine cleanliness and provided a nice expanse of green to stroll through, even though it was pretty steamy. Meeting up with Alex and exploring the city together was such a pleasant addition.
When I got to Amanda’s dad’s house there here hugs all around. She and her husband, along with their two kids, visit every year. I had met her dad and his girlfriend, Lana, several times in LA, so it was cool to be in their Singapore home. The entire family was so kind, ensuring I was comfortable and always thinking about what I should see/eat in Singapore. After months of developing country conditions and street food (ok, Bali aside), I felt ridiculously spoiled. And the food! I certainly gained weight over the week I spent with them, but it was well worth it. Whether at the house or in a restaurant, it was plentiful and delicious.
In addition to the amazing meals, it was nice to relax with people I knew and to just be. We had leisurely breakfasts, watched cooking shows, played ping pong… it was perfect. I didn’t need to research restaurants on Trip Advisor or figure out how to get from point A to point B or negotiate for a taxi. Everything was simple, and my trip-planning brain was happily on hiatus.
There were, of course, a few outings and the Singapore Zoo was definitely a highlight. That’s one high-class joint! Moats, bushes and low wooden fences are used instead of bars and cages while orangutans hang in the trees above your head. Visit one of the enclosures during feeding time for an extra treat. We watched baboons feast and it was quite the spectacle. Some would jump up and “beg” for a banana to be thrown their way, then catch it mid-air. If one baboon missed out, you’d hear about it through their screeching. With their big, red, bulbous behinds, those are some loud and ugly characters.
Another memorable food moment was the durian quest. I’d had it once in Bangkok with sticky rice, but it was so smothered in coconut milk I felt the need to try it naked. To my surprise, there are several varieties of durian. Unsurprisingly, my hosts knew just the guy to buy them from. Durian fruit is banned in many hotels, trains, buses, etc. Basically anywhere the smell can be trapped and infect others. It’s extremely pungent and smells like dirty feet (in my humble opinion). Two different varieties were purchased for a taste test. First I sampled the stronger variety and it tasted like… ONIONS! Yes, onions. But the finish was somewhat sweet. It was one of the strangest things I’d ever eaten. The other was milder and sweet throughout, although I wasn’t in a hurry to buy more of either. I’ll stick with lychees and leave durian for the true fruit connoisseurs.
As usual I’ve dominated this post with food so I’ll switch gears for a look inside Singapore. It’s the most “big brother” place I’d ever been, and I learned a lot from Amanda’s dad. In the hands of the wrong people things could go terribly wrong, but with well-paid government officials and politicians, corruption and abuse are very low. Everything is controlled. You want a car? They only give out a certain number of permits a year to keep traffic in check. And all cars have a government tracking device because, depending on your permit, you can only drive through certain parts of the city at certain times. Admittedly, Singapore has the least traffic congestion of any major international city I’ve been to so it’s not without purpose. Cameras are everywhere and public shaming is big. Before I left there was an article in the paper about a woman peeing in an elevator. They printed the security camera image along with a damning headline. Lucky for her the camera was pointed at the back of her head. It all seems to work, though, and residents enjoy a clean and safe environment in exchange for a few personal freedoms (although I’m quite ok with the restriction of peeing in public places- I wish other countries would follow suit!). It’s an interesting kind of utopia and the longer I stayed the more fascinated I became. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I certainly had a blast spending time with people from different facets of my life. One thing I won’t miss: the beer prices.