On January 26, we arrived in Singapore after a very long flight from Sydney, and took a late night taxi to our hotel. It was in the heart of 'Little India' and very modest. More on that in a minute. But first, some background on the city.
Singapore, 'Lion City' in Sanskrit, is made up of Singapore Island and 58 much smaller islands in its territorial waters. Located off the tip of the Malay peninsula, this city-state was "officially" founded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819, to neutrally settle rival claims by the local Malays and Chinese. Today, the population is made up of 77% Chinese, 14% Malay, 7% Indian and 1% everyone else. The government strives to unite all of the ethnic groups, not an easy task, and guarantees its citizens decent housing, health care and high standards of education .The Singapore River is bound by the Boat and Clarke Quays, renovated districts for delightful dining and sight-seeing. This is the historical center and heart of the city and where one can enjoy a 'bumboat' tour which winds its way through one of the city's marine area.
So, we arrived at our hotel called Little India, in 'Little India', coincidentally, and discovered our timing was perfect. The Hindu Thaipusam festival, occurring in the month of Thai (January or February) was just about to begin. It is one of the most dramatic Hindu festivals, in which devotees honor Lord Muruga, also known as Lord Subramaniam, with amazing acts of physical resilience. Devotees, men only, subject themselves to seemingly masochistic acts as fulfillment for answered prayers. The most spectacular are the vel kavadi, great cages of spikes that pierce the skin of the carriers who walk with the support of family and friends for miles through the city. Some also skewer their tongues and cheeks, some walk in shoes made of nails, others pull heavy carts with ropes attached to hooks in their backs. Most of the participants we saw appeared to be in a trance-like state as they moved to the drums, chants and singing support of their entourages. They say that only the truly faithful should attempt the ritual!
The festival began late the second night we were there, and continued non-stop, day and night for the next three days. We were right in the heart of it, across the street from the temporary police headquarters and adjacent to one of the main temples. Our hotel was filled with Indian men and some couples and outside was a huge mass congregation of male devotees. The scratchy sound of Hindu songs and prayers blared from speakers at the temple almost non-stop, punctuated by occasional cheers and shouts on the street below our window. The steamy air was filled with the smell of curries and fried delicacies and the few close restaurants were packed with people.
We followed along one day as the seemingly endlesss procession made it's way from an area close to our hotel to a temple in the heart of Singapore, miles away. This festival, now banned in India, is said to be the second largest in the world. Only in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, will you find a larger one.
We were immersed in the Indian culture of Singapore. One night we decided to eat at a restaurant catering to locals only. It was located upstairs above a fast food shop, and as we wound our way up with the crowd, we came to a room bulging with people. We had to wait for some time for space to open up at a long communal table. This gave us some time to observe and learn how to eat with our hands, as was the custom there. First, people would wash their hands at a wash basin in the corner of the room. Then either using flat bread or the four fingers of the right hand, rice and curry would be scooped up and put in the mouth, giving the thumb a flick to help transport every morsel. It looked easy enough. We started eating but found that it was much harder than it seemed. Curry and rice was soon all over our hands, faces and laps. We ended up with our mouths inches from our banana leaf plates, working hard to get more of our food in us than on us. And it wasn't made any easier with the hungry crowd waiting for seats to open up. After we finished, we washed up again, and left, a little humbled by the experience.
Down in the street below, all the shops were open and Indian music was blaring. It was nighttime and the crowds were packed tight, shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk while the festival devotees moved slowly along half of the road, the other half being spared for cars and buses. We had to hold hands at times to avoid becoming separated. We moved along with the crowd, passing shops selling beautiful saris and fabrics, Indian music and videos, sweet pastries, western clothing, and gold jewelry. Once again we were about the only tourists around, as most others would visit during the day, then return to their tourist hotels at night. Staying in Little India was like being in India. It gave us a total, round-the-clock experience. Luckily, we had earplugs to sleep at night, as the noise was loud and constant.
Venturing out from our hotel, we learned how to travel on the subway-bus system. It was neat and orderly, as reputation would have it. And there was no confusion about the rules of conduct, as shown here. Singapore has a well deserved reputation for being a very clean and civil society and obviously, these fines are part of the reason.
On a lighter note, the smell of the subway is also guarded with equal enthusiasm. The durian fruit, while apparently delicious, has an odor of rotting flesh, some say, and is absolutely not allowed.
The Chinese New Year was about to be celebrated and even the KFC restaurant had a New Year's themed ad campaign going. With traditional gold and red lettering, they promoted prosperity and happiness with their chicken, fries and Pepsi.
We spent hours at the Jurong Bird Park, which was quite spectacular in a number of ways. It was clean and well maintained (no surprise there) and had magnificent birds from 600 different species. The highlight had to be the South-East Asian Birds Aviary. It had a 75 foot waterfall, full grown tropical trees and simulated rain forest thunderstorms every day at noon. The birds in the aviary bred, nested, and fought territorial battles right over our heads as we sat there in awe. We have never seen any aviary as stunningly beautiful.
This grand bird has the distinction of being the largest pigeon in the world. She stood over 12 inches high and flocked together with her brethren for hand feedings in the aviary, to everyone's delight.
After a wonderful day at the Jurong Bird Park, and a quiet night of rest, earplugs in place, we set off for downtown Singapore. For a while we had been contemplating our next destination and the only absolute criterion was our plane reservation from Hong Kong to San Francisco at the end of March. Other than that, we were totally free. Malaysia, while close, was of some concern, given the political climate. So we decided to return to our favorite island, Bali, and from there move into the eastern islands of Indonesia. We ordered and later picked up our tickets, then went to visit the Asian Civilization Museum. We had the most delightful guide, an ex-pat from the US, who had been living in Singapore for many years, married to a Singaporean, a keen student of Chinese art and history, and amazingly informative. A new home for the museum was under construction and due to open in a matter of months. We were dazzled by the museum pieces, especially of the early Chinese arts and crafts.
Though it looks like a tribute to the durian fruit banned from the confines of Singapore, this is actually part of the Esplanade Arts Complex, under construction while we were there. It is part of an ambitious goal, to make Singapore the cultural hub of the region encompassing stages, theaters, rehearsal rooms and concert halls.
With time left on our subway/bus pass, we traveled out to the beautiful Botanical Gardens. The National Orchid Garden, located within the Botanical Gardens, was especially lovely. It has the world's largest display of orchids, over 60,000 plants. Later, resting by a lake in the garden, we met and had a chance to talk to a native retired Singaporean. He was eager to share his opinions on the state of the world from an asian perspective.
He was most eager to support the US in combating terrorists and felt there was nothing to do but take a very strong position on it. We maintained a quiet and attentive posture as we had heard in our travels through Asia all kinds of opinions and elected not to try to convince anyone of anything. The most common opinion seemed to be skepticism and anxiety about a "war" against terrorism. But here in Singapore there was no doubt and no skepticism being voiced, at least by this retired Chinese Singaporean. Perhaps it is emblematic of Singaporean values which emphasize respect for authority and the rights of others, discipline, hard work and a sense of order in society.
On our last night in Singapore we went down to the old Boat Quay and enjoyed a drink while overlooking the river. Harry's Pub was popular with the business district crowd and tourists, and a complete contrast from our Little India abode. But then Singapore is a city of contrasting cultures skillfully intertwined into one.