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Escaping Singapore for the Chinese New Year

Boasting an enviable blend of architecture from different periods and in varying styles, the tropical island city of Singapore is certainly a sight for sore eyes if you’ve been away from civilization for a prolonged period of time. Aesthetically-pleasing from every angle, it presents some of the most extraordinary and dizzying buildings that the world has ever seen, going so far as to give the forward-thinking likes of Dubai and Vegas a run for their gazillions.

Encouragingly, it’s not just in the skyscraper-smothered Financial District where you’ll find the latest and greatest feats of engineering. Some of the oldest buildings in the city remain the most impressive, with the truly beautiful nature of ‘Raffles Hotel’ triumphing in capturing your imagination as soon as you step past the immaculately turned-out doormen. Paying testament to the opulence of a bygone era when Sir Stamford Raffles fortified his designs on the city, the hotel is a marvel. The sole downside to a trip inside is the prices of the food and drink. A friend called Leigh from my hometown in England had warned me that a ‘Singapore Sling’ was likely to cost as much as forty dollars, or twenty pounds. At least it cost me nothing to peruse… unless I was populating a league of my own and plain lucky when I swept through on a whim. A short distance away, ‘Raffles Hospital’ can be found. This time around, I breezed past the junction-abutting building without a care in the world. It was a far-cry from when I’d visited the hospital in 2006 for a jab of post-bite rabies treatment.

I trundled on to Victoria Street, aiming my feet towards the nearest bridge over the Singapore River. En-route, I wound up walking past St. Andrew’s Cathedral, a stunning place of worship a font’s hurl from the waterfront. Washed in white, it acts as a central beacon of purity and hope. In a similar fashion, the city at large leads by example in many ways, not least because its strict laws suggest that everything is dandy. However, if any given laws which are applied to a town, city or country become progressively stricter, it doesn’t always mean that crime is gradually reduced as a result. What happens instead, more often than not, is that crime plunges deeper underground. So, while Singapore might appear to be almost crime-free and exceedingly safe even in the darkest and most far-flung districts, the smokescreen effect can only ever fool so many folk.

I fancied a walk towards Sentosa, a smaller neighbouring island suffused with all the fun of the proverbial fair. An adrenaline-activating playground for children and adults alike, there are numerous ways to let one’s hair down, whether by commandeering a Segway, zip-lining over a swathe of jungle canopy, communing with nature within its Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom, or learning about the history of Fort Siloso by exploring its old tunnels.

Spying no slip road over to the island, I headed in the direction of the train station as a rainstorm swept through the CBD’s cold and soulless urban canyons. Careful not to get fined for jay-walking, I followed the masses, waiting patiently for cheeky green men to present themselves at the busiest intersections. If I came to a point where there was no pedestrian crossing in place, I either dashed over the road whilst hoping for the best, or I swung left or right and followed the pavement until it yielded a light-aided place to cross, safe in the knowledge that there was absolutely no chance I could be fined. Unless my feet happened to overstep the white lines marking the road, that was. Ironically, as soon as I began crossing a large proportion of roads, the light-contained green man began flashing faster than ever, suggesting that I better get a move on if I didn’t aim to be, a) flattened by traffic, or b) chased by a cash-hungry cop. One sign that I couldn’t help but notice read: ‘Vehicles parked here will be referred to the Traffic Police.’ Was ‘referred’ really the most appropriate word that could have been used? It seemed altogether too ambiguous, potentially implying that such vehicles were going to be awarded a complementary reference in due course. In reality, they would no doubt be taken to a compound and then a crusher if the owner failed to pay the levied fine. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes… that’s where I was! I was pondering if I could get fined for crossing a road if the green man was flashing with greater regularity than a pervert. It was a distinct possibility. Awarding my mind space to somersault in contemplation, I took a moment to breathe and saw a businessman rooting in his ear from the corner of my eye. He was digging for wax. A second later, he extracted his finger and flicked a nub of wax in an arc towards the gutter. ‘Nooooooooooo!’ I felt conditioned to scream. I even half-considered propelling my body into the type of horizontal position immortalised by Superman. Summoning The Good Samaritan within, I couldn’t let the wax fall to the ground in case The Earwax Police had set their sights on the man. It was a moral obligation to help prevent a fellow foreigner from getting fined a fortune for something he perhaps didn’t even realise was a crime. But that’s the thing. Could it be construed as a crime, or was I being overly paranoid? Pouring yet another vat of fuel upon my burgeoning paranoia, a friend from the UK had just messaged me to highlight another faux-pas which could wind up being costly.

‘Not flushing the toilet after you’ve used it can come with a fine of up to one-hundred and fifty dollars. Many toilets have infra-red sensors, so it can be easily detected if somebody has been lazy and just walked away without being considerate enough to do their part in helping to keep the city as clean as can be.’ Michael had lived in Holland Village, and he’d worked in and out of Singapore for the best part of five long years. Employed in the media industry, the country had provided a sound base for him. Keen to get an insider’s lowdown on the city, I asked him about the best things to see and do. In response, he mentioned the obvious along these straight and narrow lines: if money’s no object, head for Orchard Road in order to shop yourself silly; should you possess a head for heights, take a ride on the world’s largest observation wheel, The Singapore Flyer; if you aspire to drink amidst an atmosphere of sophistication, pay a visit to ‘Hacienda’ in the Dempsey area. Meanwhile, if you’d like to catch sight of animals during your stay, a visit to the zoo or a ride on the Night Safari should cater to your needs. For sure, you’re unlikely to see much wildlife on the streets of the city other than in the form of cats. Stray dogs are unheard of.

I replied to Michael’s message, asking him if he still had any friends kicking back in the city. I was surprised when he said that he didn’t, until he elaborated. ‘They all got bored and left,’ he remarked, which forced me to wonder how much longer I might stay.

The next day it rained. I’d never seen rain like it. Relentlessly crashing to earth with untold malice, there surely couldn’t be a dry eye in any house. The Kampong Glam drains simply couldn’t shoulder the blow, unwilling to embrace the deluge, their network of subterranean conduits already full. There was nowhere for the water to go, so it pooled. The street was literally awash, the paved road floundering two feet under. The grey skies promised nothing but more of the same. Opposite “Sleepy Sam’s Guesthouse,” a camera specialist struggled to nudge open his door for business… not that he’d be lapping up any passing trade until the heavens gave it a rest. If nothing else, the downpour was a sight to behold, bug-sized water droplets ricocheting off the palm fronds. Sultan Mosque at the end of the road remained indifferent. Having presided over Bussorah Street since the Malay-Muslim community laid down its foundations, it had seen it all before. It was January, and rain, rain, and then more rain was expected.

I’d been cooped inside all day, and it was time to make a dash for it. My stomach hated me for not keeping it busy. My underworked digestive tract was equally as upset, bored out of its inactive body at having nothing to do. Although trace elements of breakfast would still have been easing their way through the system, the toast and fruit combo hadn’t been filling enough. It was time to hit Liang Seah Street, a couple of blocks away. Momentarily teetering in Sam’s Creepy doorway, I thrust out my right arm, far enough for it to undercut the building’s protective eaves. I could see that it was lashing it down, but I needed to feel the rain, to get a handle on the moisture content. If the worst came to the worst, I’d be able to shelter inside Raffles Hospital, maybe even Park View Square, the latter building of which has to rank as one of Singapore’s most extraordinary structures given its Gothic presence. It looks like it belongs in a Tim Burton movie. Gotham City clearly missed out.

Why oh why hadn’t I bought an umbrella? It’s an essential part of a person’s Singapore Survival Kit, yet I’d been living in hope that the weather might improve. My optimism had even propelled me through a particularly evil thunderstorm whilst I’d been walking alongside the river, inland from Robertson Quay. I was surprised at the way in which land use altered so uncompromisingly, Clarke Quay’s bars and restaurants giving way to Robertson Quay’s luxury penthouse suites, before a dizzying community of tragically bland apartment blocks disgraced Kim Seng Park with their overbearing, Communist-styled presence.

Back on Liang Seah Street, I sat myself down and ordered ‘Mee Siam,’ a wholesome soup of appetite-appeasing proportions. In spite of presiding over an open sewer, the roadside restaurant couldn’t be faulted. Even the likes of Gordon Ramsey could learn a thing or two about teamwork there, for the place ran like clockwork. No sooner had I ambled up to a ‘server,’ my order was taken, I was seated, and my food was delivered within the space of ninety seconds. Fond of favouring unpretentious eateries, I was gobsmacked. What’s more, the row of five cooks appeared to be having a blast, enjoying the act of making the dishes as much as customers enjoyed consuming them. Good-natured banter liberally flew between the woks and the plastic tables around which people were eating. Efficiency was paramount. Priding itself on its fantastic customer service, there was little wonder that my stomach felt compelled to persuade my feet to meet it halfway along the street at specific times each day.

The Chinese New Year was almost upon the city, as it was the world at large. Lavish banners bearing Chinese script flapped up a musical storm in Chinatown. Below such banners, rows of women were busily packing dried food. Perfect for parties, the food would be presented on platters in the run-up to the much-anticipated return of the rabbit.

As much as I wanted to hang back in The Pore, it was time to leave. I just didn’t know by which means I’d be able to get into Malaysia, though. I’d been told that it would be near-impossible to book a bus ticket out of the country with it being so close to Chinese New Year. Remembering that Jeremy at the guesthouse was a font of travel-related knowledge, I bustled back to “Sleepy Sam’s” after sweeping my way along Orchard Road one final time, almost tripping in shock when I saw the heavily-secured Royal Thai Embassy midway along its mile-long stretch. On the wall in front of two helmeted guards, banners insisted that people ‘Believe in Thailand.’ Adding intrigue to temptation, fleets of double-decker buses kept flashing past sporting adverts for Air Asia flights. ‘Chiang Mai… just a nap away!’ screamed the most prominent, turning my head if not my heart. Although the ‘Land of Smiles’ remains one of my favourite countries, I had seen much of what it has to offer on two previous journeys. Malaysia, on the other foot, remained something of a mystery. That in mind, a ticket to Melaka would suit me down to the sea.

‘Sorry, man. You need to get yourself up to The Golden Mile. We don’t actually sell tickets here; we just dispense advice.’ For once, Jeremy was on the defence, his unusually curt answers proving that he was preoccupied with a Japanese lady and her young daughter who were stranded amidst the check-in formalities. Taking my cue, I ventured to the door. It had just begun to rain again… and when I say ‘rain,’ I mean ‘pour with rain.’ The striking of ten p.m. was nigh, at which time the majority of the travel agencies would customarily unhook their phones and slam closed their shutters in order to announce the end of another exhausting working day. Feeling guilty for intruding, I meekly backtracked to the desk to ask if I could borrow Jeremy’s umbrella. ‘Sure, Steve… why not? Everybody else does.’ I couldn’t tell if he was being kind or contemptuous. Grabbing the ready-soaked instrument of salvation, I didn’t hang around to find out. The Japanese girl had just spilt her drink everywhere, and Jeremy suddenly had other things to worry about.

Standing on the threshold between comfortable familiarity and freezing distress, I looked to the skies for confirmation that what I was about to do was bound to do me few favours, if any. But what choice did I have?

There were ten travel agencies to go at, but only one shot in each. Luckily, they were all lined up beside one another. Beyond the eaves of The Golden Mile Complex, rain struck the ground with more force than strictly necessary. Inside the complex, hundreds of people huddled, many of them taking metaphorical pews at tables in order to eat whilst the thunderstorm passed over. Starting at one end of the line of agencies, I ducked inside each one in turn, asking about prices for bus tickets to Melaka in Malaysia. The first man I asked refused to entertain me at point blank range. ‘Busy,’ he said, denying me even a sincere glance in the eye. Skeptical, I sauntered around the back of his desk, given that I was in a position to do so since the agency in which he toiled teetered on the edge of the complex. Clocking my move, he hastened to cover his computer-based tracks – but he was too slow. It was blatantly obvious that he’d been playing cards on his PC instead of working. He wasn’t bothered, though; he simply swivelled around on his seat and laughed.

Not one single ticket to Melaka was available from any of the next four agencies that I entered. Midway along the line, I paused for reflection, staring over at the semi-submerged state of Beach Road, thankful that I wasn’t caught in the rain, but anxious that I could be stranded in Singapore until the residual traces of the Chinese New Year celebrations had been erased from memory. The sixth agency I stumbled into granted me a tenuous ray of hope, confirming that one ticket to Melaka was indeed available… at the grossly inflated price of thirty-five Singaporean dollars. Choking at the cost, I sloped away in shock, having expected to pick up a ticket for less than twenty dollars. Crushingly, only one other agency had a ticket for sale – and they were charging the frankly ridiculous price of fifty-five dollars. Thus, my decision had been made, so I rushed back to scoop up the cheapest ticket, not expecting to be faced with a crisis in-the-making. A man had just sat down at the agency. Even though he was talking in ‘Singlish,’ I intercepted the gist of the conversation. The word ‘Melaka’ tripped off his tongue with alarming regularity. It was obvious that he wanted to go. Bad. But not as bad as me. I considered distracting him somehow so that I could ram a request in edgeways, but the agency employee was engaged in an intense bartering war as he vainly attempted to lower the price of the ticket to thirty dollars. It wasn’t a market stall, so there was no way that any form of bargaining was going to come to pass. Disgruntled at failing in his mission to snag a bargain, he charged away from the desk in a huff, granting me a chance to intervene. Wasting no time in slapping three ten-dollar notes plus a cache of one-dollar bills on the overworked desk, I begged for the agency’s last ticket to Melaka. Were I to get stuck in Singapore, there would be no telling how much more money I might spend.

I couldn’t sleep. Anxiety had consumed me, and now regurgitation had taken hold. A nightmare provoked me to wake up in a cold sweat, the chilling likes of which refused to surrender its intensity, holding me hostage until dawn. Deep down, I was terrified of being held up at the border. Ever since the debacle at Surabaya Airport when I’d been refused entry into Indonesia on grounds that I didn’t have a return flight ticket to present, I’d been conscious that I consistently seemed to fall foul of bad luck when it came to entering and leaving countries. Given that the border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia can be awkward if you’re seen to be suspicious, I wondered what I might be able to do in advance to ease my subsequent passage through Immigration. In light of already being awake, I rolled out of bed earlier than the birds that were conspicuously nesting in the musty guesthouse loft. Shame I’d forgotten that I was on the top bunk and it was a three-foot drop to the floor. Such is life, and potential death. It was a good thing I was leaving in any case; “Sleepy Sam’s” was due to have its so-called ‘spring clean’ that morning which would involve a thorough scraping-away of general grime. It would also involve the spraying of the entire upper floor, private rooms and the main dormitory area included. No inch would go untouched in the name of freshening the busy-bodied building up.

I was packed and downstairs by half-eight. Lunging forward to relay my door key to Jeremy, the American man who guarded reception at all hours, he made to shake my head, not expecting to have his palm scarred by the serrated side of the metal in my grip. ‘Oh… you’re going? I thought you just wanted to shake my hand for some abstract reason. Well don’t forget your ten-dollar key deposit.’ In truth, the reclamation of such money had totally slipped my mind, so I thanked Jeremy for being so honest when he could have posted the cash into his back pocket. Trading in Khaled Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ masterpiece for Martin Cruz Smith’s crime-corrupted novel ‘Havana Bay,’ I bid adieu to the other two members of staff before easing my limbs on to Bussorah Street. Barely a murmur of life could be detected. Shops were just beginning to open as I loped east, pining to make contact with Beach Road – one of the city’s main arteries – sooner rather than later. Bounding up the steps of the nearest overpass, my attention come a cropper as a result of ‘The Concourse,’ one of the most imposing buildings within reach of The Golden Mile Complex, the base of which houses a party of shops.

I’d been instructed to check-in for my bus at least half an hour prior to departure. I made it in the nick of time, surmising that I might as well spend the loose change a-jingling in my pocket. I only had one remaining note to my name, but I hoped the ten dollars that it was worth would see me through Melaka Sentral upon arriving in the city without any Malaysian currency. Confident that I’d be able to convert the dollars into ringits at the bus station, I folded and stuffed the note into one of my breast pockets for safe-keeping, spying my coach below the slippery concourse. It spelt the end of my life as an honourary Singaporean. Like itinerant wanderer Jack Kerouac knew only too well, the open road awaited. It was up to me to boldly hit it like I meant it without backing down.

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