“Clearly you’ve never been to Singapore”, famously uttered Captain Jack Sparrow upon freeing Elizabeth Swan from her corset using a knife. This wasn’t the only reason I wanted to visit the city but it was up there, along with the fact it would coincide with Eurovision. I figured flying to South East Asia was a cheap price to pay in order to escape the hideous showboating and rip away skirts.
When my friend Adam, who I first met two years ago on a trek to Machu Picchu, mentioned the pair of us going to stay with his friend Roshni in Singapore, I think he was expecting a little more resistance. I agreed almost immediately. It was only afterwards the gravitas of the decision really hit me.
It seemed bizarre to travel all that way to only visit one place so we set upon Malaysia and Thailand in the process. This post, however, is about Singapore, what we saw and did there, and the lessons we learnt along the way.
Changi airport is one of the best air-conditioned spaces in the world. How do I know this? I tried going outside at eleven o’clock at night to hail a cab. Two steps out into that muggy wall of heat and I returned to the Wi-Fi and eateries of the arrival hall. While waiting for Roshni to meet us, unsure of exactly how we had ended up in such a predicament, we counted our money and tried to work out how many Singapore dollars there were to the pound and if everything before us was a bargain or a rip off. It’s fair to say that Singapore has equal opportunities for both.
Roshni collected us and we got a taxi across the city, taking in views of the marina and the incredible number of skyscrapers before blasting out the other side and up to her apartment. Roshni moved to Singapore last year to teach. She’s possibly the most upbeat and spirited person I have ever met. She’s purposeful and attentive and her smile can sort of break your heart a bit. On top of this, she insisted we take her bed while she slept on the sofa. It was the first of many nights Adam and I were in bed together.
The following morning Roshni made us smoothies and introduced us to her flatmate Amanda who also worked at the school. They took us for breakfast at a restaurant called Jimmy Monkeys to sweeten the deal before we attended a dance show at their school. It did the trick. As I sat with a thick vanilla milkshake, eggs and avocado smeared across soda bread, I couldn’t care what we did, as long as we kept cool in the process.
Like most drama schools, there were a lot of pushy stage parents. My first encounter with them was when we were ushered into the darkened auditorium and told we could sit anywhere by the other teachers, before being moved along by parents who had booked specific seats. They obviously needed to best capture the offbeat stammerings of their kids. After being moved on yet again by another set of Croydon facelifted mothers we hit the back row and watched two hours of theatre which was probably cute if you had an invested interest/offspring putting in a wonderful performance as a daisy or rabbit.
Afterwards Roshni took us on the Singapore underground service, the MRT. I just did some research and that stands for Mass Rapid Transport. How delightful.
We went to every coffee shop, bookshop and bakery we could find before heading to the top of the Pinnacle Tower for an incredible view over the city. Singapore has been built up very quickly. The skyline looks like a competition nobody is winning.
We headed back down and strolled around the city before Roshni took us to one of her favourite vegan restaurants for wraps, soup and salads. Adam and I discovered paying by card in Asia is not commonplace. Like the Queen, I don’t carry money. Unlike the Queen, I serve a purpose beyond just looking nice. Each time we wanted to pay for a meal we had to locate a cash machine on the busy streets and then worry about how to get back and whether our bags and passports would still be there. Considering it lacked my favourite foodstuffs, the vegan restaurants we visited in Singapore were incredible. I was almost converted.
Roshni took us through Chinatown and back onto the MRT to go and see the Supertree Grove in the Gardens by the Bay. This is a must when in Singapore. Not only is it beautiful but it’s also free. My favourite things are beautiful and free. We spread out on the paved floor, in the way of everyone else, and stared up. The supertrees are a collection of eighteen man-made trees, at around eighty-feet high. One of them has a restaurant inside to give an impression of scale. Each evening a light show plays out across the trees in sync with classical music blasted from hidden speakers. We were treated to a waltz. It was a mix of Fantasia, Debusssy and the music from X Factor. I was quiet and still for ten minutes. If there’s one thing it is enchanting to be, it is quiet and still. The lights and music pumped through me and I was so moved by the display that I realised my mouth had dropped open. The experience was something I was so pleased to enjoy with friends.
Afterwards we met up with Roshni’s friends and went to a bar in an alley where musicians played covers on guitar, trumpet and keyboard and we sipped at expensive cocktails named after renaissance painters or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Soon we were dancing away in the hot night. Adam and I took breaks to stand in front of a huge fan that pumped out recycled air into the alley. We watched a woman getting arrested and Roshni fell in love with yet another musician, taking up residence in the chair directly opposite the performance area to pine. After clearing away all of the money we had withdrawn earlier in the day on drinks, Adam and I were forced to call it a night and get a cab back to Roshni’s apartment, falling into a drunken sleep underneath the buzz of the ceiling fan. The best way to get over jetlag is to get drunk.
The following day we woke up late to discover we had been left alone. It was a Monday and Roshni and Amanda had both got up and gone to work/school. A friend of mine had recently returned to the UK after spending a year in Singapore and had given us a number of spots to check out, including a barber’s shop in Geylang where he had worked.
When we got outside it started raining, a thick viscous downpour that quickly soaked us through. I was growing tired of the mop of fringe dangling wet in my face. I wanted it gone and considered shaving my head.
We took the MRT without Roshni’s assistance for the first time and when we arrived in Aljunied (memorised by thinking of All You Need Is Love by The Beatles) we found the barbers closed. I had told Adam we couldn’t rest or eat until we had found it. After rattling the door for confirmation our thoughts turned to our stomachs. We didn’t have a clue where we were or where was good. There were no picturesque bakeries or quaint vegan eateries so we stumbled into an open air buffet next door where we were promptly handed two plates of what we quickly realised were the “westerner’s special” – rice, noodles, chicken, sweet and sour pork. It was delicious but Adam was feeling adventurous. He went back up and returned with a plate of pig skin. He assumed it would be fried off, similar to crackling. He was disappointed. What he had collected was boiled skin. I watched him struggle with a mouthful before deciding I needed a similar kind of punishment. I have put some terrible things in my mouth but the lump of pig made me heave. I quickly chewed and swallowed it down but I could feel it writhing. I was once told that pork is the closest meat to human and I had the horrible feeling I had gone all Hannibal on the buffet. Our two plates of food plus pig skin, two bottles of coke and four bottle of water came to £9.00. You can’t beat that with a stick.
Being suckers for punishment we decided to head to Orchard Road, an intense complex of shopping centres designed for the ex-pat community especially. The place was so swanky that I felt like I was going to be shooed out with a broom the whole time. Adam found a gold-plated, jewel-encrusted pen that was marked up at £3,500.00. He said he would buy it if he had the money. I called him a capitalist pig. It was the first of a series of conversations we had about materialism and politics. I told him a Bic was good enough for me. He pitied me.
We had arranged to meet Roshni and to visit another of her favourite spots, East Coast Park, but were slightly concerned we would have to forgo meat from another meal. Despite the tale/tail of the pig skin we were eager to get some food in us before our next adventure and hid in a KFC near our arranged meeting point while trying to connect to the Wi-Fi so we could book a restaurant for dinner. As Roshni had been so kind to us we wanted to treat her. When we told her she seemed genuinely impressed but had already set her heart on visiting Brownice, a vegan Italian bistro nearby.
We first went to East Coast Park, took off our shoes and paddled in the water before walking up and down the beach and talking about how connected we felt with the earth. At the time it felt really intense and honest but I now feel silly and clichéd for considering a concept so enlightened. Not me at all.
Brownice had the best food I ate in Singapore. The pizzas were big, covered in tofu and vegetables and their Root Beer float changed my perspective on the universe. Again, when it came time to pay, we couldn’t use our cards and Roshni had to pick up the tab for the bill we had kindly taken her out for. We got vegan ice cream and sat out in the hot street, watching traffic and street cats wander past until it was time to go home.
The next morning we awoke at six for our flight to Malaysia. Roshni made us smoothies so thick they would have been placed in a remedial class and we booked a taxi back to the airport. Our next adventure was waiting.