Eager to leave Hanoi, we hopped on a flight to Singapore to visit a friend of Claudia’s from graduate school, Shivani. She and her parents had kindly agreed to host us in their apartment on the outskirts of the city, lucky us. Definitely the best deal in town, with breakfast included! Here is the view from their living room. They moved to Singapore from India about ten years ago.
I have to admit I had low expectations of Singapore. I had been warned by more than one person that the whole city was “one giant shopping mall.” Certainly, there are areas that live up to this reputation, like the high-end consumer paradise seen above, where you can even hire a gondola to paddle you around on an indoor waterway.
However, there is a lot more to the world’s only island city-state than expensive retail. Although Singapore was established in 1819 as a British colonial port of trade, most of it was built up after 1965 when it separated—or rather, was expelled—from Malaysia because of ideological disputes with Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew. His policies enabled rapid development, transforming Singapore into one of the world’s strongest economies. The city is highly organized, with low crime rates and little government corruption. Sleek modern architecture abounds along the downtown bay. Much of its streamlined geometry is inspired by nature: the lotus flower-esque ArtScience Museum, the DNA-shaped Helix Bridge…
…the iconic 50-meter-tall Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay…
…and the twin domes of the Esplanade Theatres, modeled after durian, which is described by some as the world’s smelliest fruit. (I’d argue that the banana is right up there, too.) By other accounts, the buildings look like fly’s eyes.
While the “Singapore model” fostered the prosperous conditions that have attracted a diverse population from around the world, this social order comes with high costs. Strict rules governing everyday conduct—such as bans on littering, spitting, and not flushing toilets—are enforced with hefty fines. Yes, even eating stinky durians in public is a no-no. (If I were in charge, the first thing I’d outlaw would be bananas.) Much more serious than these petty crimes are the ones punishable by death. An automatic death penalty is imposed in cases of murder, and even tourists entering the country are warned that drug trafficking is a capital offense. There is no trial by jury or freedom of speech, and a type of corporal punishment known as caning is legal. Good luck getting a permit for a protest, which can only be held in a designated area known as the Speakers’ Corner and must follow strict regulations.
On a lighter note, the interactive Future World exhibit at the ArtScience Museum was sheer delight. We obeyed all the rules and didn’t make any trouble.
This animation about rising sea levels reminded me a little of my friend Meredith Leich’s art on climate change.
This community art concept gives everyone a chance participate in the creative process. When your drawing is finished, scan it and watch it come to life on screen in the virtual world.
Full immersion in the vast, swirling cosmos
So if Singapore isn’t “one giant shopping mall,” what is it? I’d call it “real-life virtual reality.” Huh? Let me explain. So take this picture above, for example. It looks fake, like it’s computer animated, but it’s actually a real picture of real fake trees. Wait, what? Exactly.
My friend Basil, who I met on my meditation retreat at Wat Tam Doi Tone, joined Claudia, Shivani, and me on our excursions later on in the day. It was great to have not one but two locals to give us their perspectives on life in Singapore.
At night, the Supertrees put on a light show.
Shivani had wanted to take us to a rooftop bar to see the skyline all lit up, but when we got there, it was closed due to the risk of lightening. Instead, we walked to an older part of the city on the waterfront. According to Basil, this area used to be quite happening before the rest of the city got hyper-developed. It’s more laid-back these days, but that suited me just fine. Until I threw up, probably from food poisoning, effectively ending my Singapore trip for all intents and purposes. It’s a bit ironic out of all the countries I had travelled through to get to this point, this misfortune occurred in “first world” Singapore.
I spent the next day lying in bed, an anti-climatic finale to “Waterfalls, Caves, and Temples: Claudia and Rachel’s Adventure in Southeast Asia.” The only waterfalls in the Singapore chapter of our story were this simulated one at the ArtScience Museum and the one we skipped at Cloud Forest, the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. Faux real.
The following morning, Claudia said goodbye to me somewhere around the hour of 3AM. I left several hours later, meeting Basil on the train and having lunch with him at the airport. Going through security, I was stopped because a bottle of sunscreen I had forgotten to take out of my carry-on was over the 100mL limit. However, I was informed I would be allowed to transfer the contraband into three smaller containers, making it legal. Magic! I tried to argue that this didn’t make any sense, but that got me nowhere. The travel-sized bottles for sale at an airport store would have cost more than I paid for the sunscreen itself, so I went back through security and told them they could just throw it away, but what a waste that would be. Then I remembered I had some prescription bottles that I could repurpose. There was still too much to fit into the two small bottles, so I squeezed the rest out into a plastic bag. New rule: can’t use a bag. So one of the security officers spent about twenty minutes helping me pour the sunscreen from the bag into the tiny opening of a hand sanitizer container I had just emptied. This whole process took so long that it was time to close the gate, but an agent from the airline offered to hold the plane for me so we could continue pouring. The logic behind any of this escapes me.
I finally boarded about ten minutes before takeoff, landed in Bangkok, then had to go through security again before my next flight to Surat Thani in Southern Thailand. This particular officer had a problem with my 110mL bottle of bug spray. I opened it and showed him that it was less than half full, thereby well under the 100mL limit. Nope, still couldn’t bring it. I watched him throw it in the garbage. That’s when I totally lost my mind. Beach vacation and meditation retreat, here I come! A prescription bottle full of sunscreen was just what the doctor ordered.