The Little Red Dot That Could

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Just south of peninsular Malaysia, narrowly separated from the mainland by the Straits of Johor, sits a tiny, densely-populated island. Its diversity and heritage are very similar to those of Malaysia, but while the latter is still a struggling developing country, the island is ranked first in all of Asia on the UN’s Human Development Index. Most impressively, it has achieved that status in only the past fifty years.

This is Singapore, yet another country I – privileged Westerner that I am – was eager to visit in spite of knowing little to nothing about it. Malaysia celebrated its Labor Day on Monday, May 1, meaning the ETAs had yet another school holiday. Feeling adventurous, Clay, Sophia, Sarah N. and I decided to take the long weekend for a whirlwind road-trip down to the “Lion City”. The plans came together over the course of a week, but ended up being a perfect little getaway.

Right after school let out on Friday, I ran home and ripped off my baju. Clay and I both hastily stuffed our backpacks with the basic supplies and went to meet the ladies in Kampar. We grabbed lunch to go in the town center; I eagerly grabbed myself a foot-long Subway hoagie, a welcome introduction to the banquet of Western cuisine at my disposal over the weekend.

As we ran back to the car, it started to torrentially rain. (After four months here, I don’t know why that still surprises us every time.) As Sarah drove carefully through the foot-deep muddy puddles, the water splashed out under our tires. Clay cried out, “TEH TARIK!” and we all burst out laughing. The car ride down was exhausting, but fun. We listened to the Chainsmokers’ entire discography, stopped halfway for ice cream and crafted ridiculous Malay sentences. Sophia found “Siapa ayam itu?” especially funny, probably because I used a funny voice to translate it as “Who dat chicken?”

IMG_9058By the time we reached Johor Bahru (the southernmost city in peninsular Malaysia), it was almost midnight. We parked our car at a mall nearby and, after some confusion, found the bus station to get across the bridge to customs. We had to run back and forth a few times to catch a bus, and even once we had it took over an hour to reach our hostel (the Little Red Dot, not exactly my favorite place I’ve stayed). We got there so late that the receptionist had gone to sleep already; we woke her up to get our key, which she was none too pleased by.

IMG_9191Fortunately, we had agreed to shell out a few extra bucks to get a private room for the four of us. It was a tad claustrophobic and the walls had some mysterious mold growing on them, but at least it gave us privacy. As we settled in, I tried to plug in my phone to charge and the power blew out. We – once again – woke the receptionist up, and she kindly if begrudgingly reset the circuit breaker for us. Once this was settled, we all passed straight out.

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Dunkin’ Donuts in SE Asia offer cheese-topped donuts. I opted against them.

We got an early start the next day and stopped by a nearby mall for breakfast. I was thrilled to find a Dunkin Donuts for breakfast, so much so that I ate there the next day as well. After breakfast, I took the lead in suggesting we start our tourism off at the Gardens by the Bay. As an avid fan of Planet Earth, this was number one on my list to visit. Singapore is noted for being at the forefront of urban naturalization, seamlessly integrating a large city environment into the existing natural landscape and making every attempt to minimize their carbon footprint. The Gardens are the apex of this national endeavor, an expansive nature reserve right along the city waterfront.

We started our visit with a ten minute ride in the Gardens’ solar-powered self-driving

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Trapped in a terrifying metal death trap… or, rather, a self-driving car!

car. While it moved at a tortoise speed, it was still pretty thrilling to see such a remarkable modern technological achievement at work. The car’s operator also informed us that the Gardens cost $53 million SGD per year to upkeep – an impressive federal investment for the country, while simultaneously nauseating to consider in comparison to the Trump administration’s massive funding cuts to environmental investments.

We then spent about an hour walking through the “Cloud Garden”, the world’s tallest man-made waterfall, surrounded by a mountain of different types of incredible foliage, staggered based on the altitude at which they best grow. From there, we visited the “Flower Garden” a massive complex showcasing different flowering plants from all the corners of the world (divided by continent). They were having a Van Gogh exhibition where they tried to recreate his paintings from tulips, a concept much more appealing in theory than in practice. We then spied a man doing a strange photo-shoot with two porcelain dolls amidst the flowers, which made us giggle. Also funny: Clay spotted figurines of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet in one area of the garden and it instantly occurred to him that, given the “haram” nature of pigs in Islamic doctrine, our students would hate Piglet. ADORABLE LITTLE PIGLET! (All due respect to the faith, of course, but this still gave us a laugh.)

We then walked to find lunch at a nearby mall, stopping briefly to admire the Supertree Grove. The Supertrees are massive purplish metal skeletons adorned at their base with vine-like plants. They are still fairly new installments, but in theory over the coming years, the vines will grow and cover the skeleton turning them into giant biomes in their own right. They were just as impressive in person as I had dreamt them to be. Also, given that the city was relatively quiet because of (Malaysian/Singaporean) Labor Day weekend, we pretty much had these famous leviathan creations to ourselves for the few minutes we were there, a humbling moment to be sure.

For lunch, we went to a world-famous Michelin star restaurant in the mall portion of the Marina Bay Sands hotel (a building vaguely resembling a cruise ship) called Din Tai Fung. Because the restaurant is family-style and franchised, in spite of its fame and awards, it was relatively affordable, so we splurged and ordered a bunch of types of soup dumplings to share and we each got our own plate of noodles. As we joked, we were #BallingOnABudget. Sophia taught us the proper way to eat soup dumplings: poke a hole in the breading, suck out the hot soup, dip the dumpling in soy sauce and dig in. It was absolutely delectable – though not even the best Michelin Star meal I ate in my 48 hours in Singapore. More on that later…

From lunch, we moseyed out to a nearby grocery store to look for western treats, and I was delighted to find American favorite Arizona Iced Tea there. I tried a unique flavor, blueberry white tea, and it was fabulous. Outside the store, Clay and I took a consumer report survey and got keychains of Singapore’s city mascot, the “Merlion”, as a free souvenir gift. We then went over to the mall’s iceless skating rink and watched two adorable kids continuously slip and fall on their butts. Clay really wanted to try it; I hesitated for a bit before agreeing to do it with him, although we both backed out when we saw the price tag for skate rental. Sometimes you’ve got to make choices to #BallOnABudget.

We took a stroll through the other shops, stopping to admire some creepy human-shaped mannequins with realistic cat heads at the Gucci outlet. We played around with some toys in the mall toy store, before going up to look at the DC Comics Café. We were stuffed from lunch, but being the nerds that we are, Clay and I felt obligated to try something. He got a strawberry Wonder Woman ice cream pop and I had a Harley Quinn mint gelato shake. Neither of us finished our desserts.

Before leaving, we had to pee. Clay and I were impressed to find the restroom we chose had been awarded five stars for being one of the best toilets in the whole mall. Like Buddy the Elf, we applauded this questionable achievement. (We have also judged every toilet we have used since then for not living up to this standard.)

From the mall, Sarah suggested we head to the city’s famous Ferris wheel, the Singapore Flyer, one of the largest in the world. In spite of a hefty price tag, we all went along with it, and it was mostly a good decision. We laughed comparing it to the awful, rickety Ferris wheel we had ridden for RM2 in Kuala Perlis, noting that this justified the extra cost of this giant ride. We shared our capsule with some other tourists, but like good American tourists, we treated it like our own; we took full photo-shoots and I did a Jordan Rodnizki-esque interpretive dance when we reached the pinnacle of the circle. In all seriousness though, it was beautiful to see the city from that high up, and amazing to consider how new all of the immense structures on its skyline are. In spite of its incredible GDP, the city really felt to me like it was just getting started. From the top, we could see all the way to Malaysia to our north and Indonesia to our south. The southern bay was also full of hundreds of barges full of cargo, an unmistakable sign of the city’s wealth and importance for trading purposes.

We all felt pretty wiped when we came back to ground level, so we headed back to our hostel for some brief recuperation. After an hour or so, we set out to find the city’s Baja IMG_9189Fresh in Little India. As I noted in my Bali blog, I’m not much of a fan of Mexican food back home, but something about wanting what I can’t have has made me crave salsa, sour cream and guac as much as any of my friends. After dinner, we wandered to a nearby bar where we sat and chatted about ETA life, political qualms and our feelings on marijuana legalization. I ordered a Singapore Sling cocktail, which only felt appropriate to try for the first time in its namesake city. For the record, I thought it was delicious.

Post-drinks, we were set to head straight home. On the walk back toward our hostel, however, we saw an intriguing sign outside a quiet building. It read: “Club Bebe: a true cultural experience”. In a burst of spontaneity, we decided to check it out. We walked up a long and sketchily well-lit set of stairs, through a door at the top to find what immediately appeared to be a strip club. There were no dancers at that moment, just a lot of flashing neon strobe lights. Captivated, we took a seat at some barstools behind a red velvet couch and ordered a pitcher of cheap Carlsberg to split. The hostess brought us a little dish of stale potato sticks to split and informed us that the performance would begin in half an hour.

As we sat, we took in our surroundings. The stage was glorious; a huge LED screen projected an apparently hyperactive version of a Windows 2000 screensaver, bordered by spider window decals and flanked by two poles. On stage left was a DJ booth and a full wardrobe of costumes; I was tempted to grab the red boa I saw out of habit. As we sat enjoying the music, the promised half-hour came and went. As we questioned the hostess’ info, Clay and Sarah (facing away from the stage) noticed some suspicious activity behind Sophia and I. We turned around to see a number of beautiful, well-dressed Asian women flirting with some clearly inebriated older Chinese businessmen. A few of them got up and left through a small corridor behind the bar. It was at that moment we were struck by a hilariously harrowing realization: Club Bebe was a brothel.

Okay, maybe not exactly. We went to scope out the corridor under the ruse of needing to use the restroom (which was closer to 1.5 stars, I might add) and noticed that the customers were only sitting in the rooms watching television with the ladies. Still, something was odd about it, an aura intensified by the discovery of a large set of lockers next to the kegs in the back area. Thoroughly freaked out and equally amused, we ditched to head home, but we were glad to have given Bebe a shot. One could say that Bebe was BliBli.

We passed out shortly after getting home. The next day, Sophia split off to meet with

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National Museum of Singapore

some family friends who lived locally. Clay went to the National Art Gallery, while Sarah and I went to the National Museum instead. The two hours we spent there (hardly enough time, if I’m being honest) were probably my favorite part of the whole trip. The museum’s main exhibit covered Singapore’s history all the way from its earliest records as a small East Asian fishing village to its many race-fueled riots to its presently booming economy. I could have spent days going through the exhibit, but alas we were on a schedule to meet back up with our friends for lunch.

When we finished in the main exhibit, Sarah and I walked over to another exhibit area

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Singaporean Malays in the early 1900s, adopting the fashion style of their British colonialists

with an eye-popping sign. We went in to find we were at the top of a giant planetarium, a walkway spiraling down around the circumference of the room. We walked through and were greeted by projections of poorly-animated cartoon animals frolicking alongside us. We think it was trying to show the different types of plant and animal life native to Singapore, but the whole thing was very strange. When we reached the bottom of the dome, we found a pair of black beanbag chairs. We laid in them and gazed up to see projections of strange flowers raining down from the ceiling. Yet again, we did not understand its significance, but we were thoroughly immersed for several minutes. The exhibit was honestly pretty poorly executed, but we still had fun getting confused by it. Let’s just say it would have been a big hit at Woodstock or Burning Man.

We then made a quick pit stop in the museum gift shop. The souvenirs were not

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The real mystery: who would want to read this?

particularly interesting, but we were charmed to find a “Mystery Book Vending Machine”. For $20 SGD, the machine would dispense a random book written by a Singaporean author, wrapped in used printer paper to hide its identity. We both risked it and got a book. Sarah’s was an awesome-looking comic book, but I was decidedly less lucky; I got the first two books of a sci-fi trilogy about a girl who learns she can talk to pterodactyls. Later that day, I found the bookstore that ran the vending machines and they graciously allowed me trade my weird purchase in for a book I actually wanted – The Sympathizer, a Pulitzer-winning novel set during the Vietnam War written by a Vietnamese author. I figure it will make good reading material during my upcoming June travels.

After this, we met up with Clay and took the subway over to the Mall where Sophia was with her family friends. On the way there, we were stopped by employees of a cosmetics company and interviewed for a viral video about Mothers’ Day. It has since gone viral and been viewed over 20,000 times, so our international celebrity is continuing to grow. At the mall, I got an underwhelming tuna sandwich and tomato soup combo for lunch while Sarah and Clay got Mexican for the second time in two days. Sophia briefly introduced us to her parents’ friends before bidding them farewell. At this point, Clay had plans to meet up with an online gaming friend while Sophia and Sarah decided they wanted to go shopping in the mall. This didn’t appeal to me, so I split off to go on an adventure of my own.

A brief bit of cultural context: Singapore’s history and culture are very closely tied to those of Malaysia. In fact, when Malaysia declared its independence in 1963, Singapore was a state within Malaysia just like Perak. The Malaysian government that took shape was dominated by Muslim Malays. While they preached the importance of setting up a moderate democracy as the basis for the country, the government was intimidated by Singapore, a region heavily populated by Chinese immigrants. Threatened by the potential lack of support they would face from the people there (in spite of reassurance from the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew), the Malay government kicked Singapore out of their union. This means Singapore is, at least presently, the only country in the world forced into independence.

Back to the present day: given the importance of Singapore’s Chinese population to its history, not to mention the fact that I already have had significant exposure to the Malay and Indian cultures, I decided to complete my trifecta of cultural exposure by exploring Chinatown. This led me to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, a massive five-story temple made famous because it contains an alleged tooth relic of Siddhartha Gautama. I have been to several Buddhist temples this year, but this was far and away the most striking in every facet – architecturally, informatively, spiritually. The main room on the first floor had a giant statue of Buddha Maitreya (believed to be a future enlightened Buddha who will come to spread teachings of dharma after they are forgotten by the terrestrial world). The statue was carved from the trunk of an ancient tree and painted gold, so in the lights of the temple it was exquisite to behold. The walls of this room were lined with thousands of small ceramic statues of different Buddhas. In the center, roped off from tourists, a congregation of Buddhists was deep in prayer led by several monks.

After a brief period of admiration, I felt vaguely unethical joining the crowd of tourists observing the praying faithful like some sort of exhibit. I headed upstairs to the second and third floor, full of incredible art and treasures depicting different Buddha figures. I then went to the fourth floor where the relic is housed, taking my shoes off and putting my phone away as a sign of respect. The actual sanctuary is behind a set of glass windows so it can be viewed and worshipped from afar. The tooth is housed in a massive gold stupa housed within walls made of solid gold tiles (aside from the aforementioned windows). On the sides of the observation room were decks with pillows for prayer purposes. I sat upon one and meditated for a few minutes. I found my thoughts were more frantic than usual, likely because of the exhaustion of travel and chaos of April (see my previous post), so I decided to take 100 very deep breaths and use the counting as a way of clearing my head. It worked beautifully, and I left the sanctuary feeling a few pounds lighter than when I came. I also took a quick detour to the massive prayer wheel on the roof, surrounded by 10,000 miniature Buddha sculptures, but only visited briefly as I did not want to disrupt the congregants using the wheel to pray.

Leaving the temple, I still had some time before I needed to meet up with the rest of the crew, so I moseyed through some of the street stalls, admiring singing bowls and paper lanterns but opting not to buy any. At the end of the market street, a sign caught my eye:

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A Michelin-star hawker stall, with a name as long as its queue

the “cheapest Michelin star meal in the world”! Having whet my appetite the day before at Din Tai Fung, and feeling displeased by my mediocre soup-and-sandy lunch, I made a pit stop. The restaurant, called “Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle”, is the first hawker stall in the world to be recognized by Michelin for its excellent cuisine. I got lucky in that the queue line (sometimes up to two hours long) only took about ten minutes to get through. For just a few SGD, I got a take-away box of chicken noodles doused with a perfectly portioned dose of sweet chili sauce. While I waited for my food, I watched as a television screen above the kitchen area displayed an interview with the stall’s founder, who said that the greatest thrill to him was not the award itself but rather that his success might award more legitimacy and attention to the amazing culinary work being done at all the hawker stall restaurants in Singapore. I can attest that the food was delicious, easily one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Asia thus far and well worth the visit.

After meeting back up, my friends and I went to the Bugis Street Market, a famous – if slightly overwhelming – street of shops and stalls in all shapes and sizes. Clay and I each purchased a set of 24 keychains for $10 SGD (a steal of a deal) to use as prizes for our students. After some more window-shopping, we struggled to pick a dinner spot, eventually setting on a gyro place nearby. Sarah mistakenly ordered hers with “hot chili sauce”, thinking it would be just a spicier version of Malaysian chili sauce. In fact, it was so hot she could barely finish the first bite of her meal. I thought she was exaggerating, so I took a bite as well… and I can confidently say it was the hottest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. I could not taste anything for about twenty minutes, and I had to drink a liter of water and a can of Milo to calm the burn.

My compatriots were all pretty exhausted by this point, so we opted to go back to the hostel and call it an early night. I was a little disappointed at first, but I realized it was a good decision, especially given the long day of travel ahead of us to make it home by sundown. While lying in bed, Clay and I listened to Hasan Minhaj’s spot-on White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, and then I took advantage of the hostels high-speed WiFi to call and catch up with Mom.

The next day we packed up early, checked out, grabbed a quick breakfast nearby the IMG_9183hostel and then Uber’d to the customs station to bus back across to Johor Bahru. After retrieving our car, Clay got into a wrong lane and almost ended up driving us back over the border to Singapore. Other than that, the ride home was more draining than it was eventful. There was substantial traffic getting back; we passed the time by playing a “Car-P-G” game in which Clay narrated a role-playing story about a space shuttle on which the other three of us were astronauts. I became enamored with the character I created, a spunky Texan recruit named Don Jon Rambutan. With a few pit stops and some laughter, we were home in no time… err, I mean… 12 hours later.

I really enjoyed my experience in Singapore. To this ignorant tourist’s eye, it appeared to be a perfect combination of the freedoms of the United States with the deep-seated diversity of Malaysia. Further research has enlightened me to the fact that the island has many social struggles of its own, largely due to the controversial political decisions made (perhaps necessarily) by Lee Kuan Yew in order to catapult the tiny society to international success in only half a century’s time. Still, the country’s many virtues – among them its appreciation of nature, its policies for equal opportunity, and its forward-thinking societal developments – are estimable and distinctive in comparison to the rest of the region, the continent and even the world at large.

The image from my trip that will stick most with me came from the National Museum. In one room of the main exhibit, a seven-minute video clip plays on a continuous loop. It shows the first public interview with PM Lee after Singapore was forced out of Malaysia. As I watched this footage and listened to him speak – even though it was in black and white, even though its subject is deceased, even though I have no direct personal ties to the history being depicted – I felt a kinship with the man. While Lee Kuan Yew is a very complicated historical figure, one whom I have since become fascinated by, in that moment he showed his raw humanity. Unwillingly thrust into a position of immense responsibility, his emotions brimmed over his political walls and he began to weep for the irreparable fracturing of his old homeland and his new one.

As he composed himself, he offered these reassuring words to Singaporeans: “In the end, sometimes history takes many devious turns. Just as a river loops and bends around mountains and valleys before it reaches the sea, so the history of a people takes many loops and bends before it reaches its destiny.” I could only imagine the strength it took to preach those words at such a distressing moment, but within them – all these years later – I found reassurance for myself. The United States is certainly going through quite a loop right now, and I too am approaching yet another bend when I return from Malaysia; still, rather than being tormented by the twisting river we ride on and the uncertainty of its destination, I can take solace in the knowledge that there is a greater unseen destiny ahead. With this conviction, I can take a deep breath (or a hundred) and carry on one day at a time.

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In short, Singapore was expensive, impressive, informative and inspiring. In some ways, it felt like an urban embodiment of my own spirit: in spite of its amazing growth over its short history, its successes are just getting started.

Reveling in wanderlust,

Nate

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