Just like home
Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
149Trip End Ongoing
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The highway was fairly flat, if busy. Apart from occasional torrential downpours, which were always early enough in the day that I would be dry before dark, and were therefore not overly troubling, the only significant inconvenience was the fruit stalls every 200yards. This may not sound like a big deal, but the stalls had only one fruit for sale: durian. The foul-smelling fruit of woe. As far as I know it's not sold outside S. E. Asia, because nobody would buy it. Even in Malaysia, where it's pretty much the national fruit, it's banned in any half-decent hotel. A spiky green fruit, about the size of a pineapple, Durian has, once cut open, the most pervasive, invasive, nauseatingly over-sweet stink known to mankind. It's like breathing sick. Worse, in the interests of cultural immersion, I had to eat one. I knew I was in for trouble when the seller looked incredulous at me.
-You like durian?
-(the bold front) Sure, I love durian. My favourite. Can I have a small one please.
-Sure I'm sure- I love it I tell you. I need a bag. I take away.
Safely around the corner and out of sight, I pulled apart the thick, spiky rind and picked out one of the soft, fleshy segments of fruit. Holding my breath, I bit. I expected the appalling taste, I did not expect the large, hard stone just under the surface, and almost wrenched out an incisor. It was pretty clear durian and I were not going to get along. I left the rest.
The following day was supposed to be an easy 60km roll into town. In fact it was a hot, shadeless 60km to the border; Singapore city was a further 20km across the island. The border controls were simple enough. There are toll booths at each end of the main bridge, except there's no toll, instead- immigration. As usual, after the border I was funneled onto an expressway to cross the island. Unusually, however, after a couple of kilometers the police stopped me. This was unprecedented.
-You cannot ride on the expressway
-I don't want to ride on the expressway
This extreme cooperation stalled his flow, so I pressed my advantage, keen to avoid a relapse into officiousness and potential fines.
-I don't know how to find Singapore city. All the signs point this way.
-You cannot ride on the motorway
-That's fine, I don't want to, but can you tell me which way I should go?
This they did, and escorted me off the wide, clean, empty hard shoulder, and onto a four-lane thoroughfare, replete with bus stops, unpredictable traffic and cycle-trap traffic lights (where the junction is so wide the lights can go from red to green before you're across, releasing 4 lanes of impatient automobiles to smash you broadside).
As an introduction to Singapore, this was quite appropriate.
Singapore is not like Asia. The roads are superbly maintained, even the
road markings seem to be touched up daily. There are rules, and they
are obeyed. The police are smartly dressed and appear to spend their
days enforcing the law. Traffic obeys traffic signals instead of ordinary human instincts of
care and caution, and cyclists are not merely considered illegitimate
road users but also devoid of physical presence. Singaporeans showed a lack of
concern for cyclists rivalled, on this trip, only by the British. Nonetheless, I made it
The city is clean, even the traditionally
'colourful' quarters such as Chinatown and Little India, and properous.
I only came across five beggars in four days there. This is unprecedented. I
was nervous of leaving the hostel, lest I break some unexpected law and
be fined or imprisoned. I kept remembering the law against jay-walking
when halfway across the street, which led to potentially lethal
hesitation. However, I had to leave the hostel. I had things
to do. More importantly, I had people to see. For the first time in
nearly two years away, friends had come to visit me. (Parents and
girlfriend are special cases and don't count). They claimed they were
coming here anyway and our meeting was pure coincidence, but I know
I checked in to the 'Cozy' backpacker hostel and spruced myself up (such as I
can). This partly out of respect and appreciation for my good friends, who I hadn't seen in nearly two years, but mostly for
fear of being thrown out of their posh hotel.
In the end, the hotel didn't bat an eyelid, but Jenna nearly threw me out when I made the mistake of removing my shoes when I entered their room. I usually cycle in sandals. I'd washed my clothes, prior to arriving in Singapore. I'd showered half an hour ago. I was clean. Either my body has developed an unprecedented capacity for foot odour, or my shoes have absorbed such vast quantities of sweat and stink that they will now release fumes of doom regardless of temporary mitigating circumstances.
We had three days together, so we saw most of Singapore. The Arab quarter, little India, Chinatown, the colonial districts (old, full of period architecture, and new, full of shopping malls and fast-food joints) and the botanical gardens. The gardens were a good call. As well as the expected array of tropical mega flora and orchids for the photographers, we spotted a monitor lizard, terrapins and a spider big enough to induce arachnophobia in other spiders. In terms of economy, infrastructure and cultural diversity, Singapore was similar to Hong Kong, but without the element of crazy that defines the latter. Hong Kong is Singapore on speed. Or Singapore is Hong Kong on Ritalin.
Mostly it was just great to be with proper friends again. We drank beer and put the world to rights. The highpoint, for other's amusement purposes at any rate, was the visit to Chinatown. We'd strategically timed this to coincide with dinner time, and efficiently located 'food street'- a short walk lined with restaurants and street vendors. We took a 'lucky dip' approach, which started out brilliantly with some fantastic fried wantons and chicken satay. We were on a roll. I was feeling in need of some bulk, so I slid back to the sate stall to fill up on sticky rice. Leaving Kieran and Jenna to fend for themselves, and to resolve one of the most amusing domestic disputes I've heard in ages:
J- I want an omelet
J- Don't be silly
K- I'm not being silly, it's fine
K- What? Get omelet!
J- But you hate eggs!
K- Yes, obviously I'm not going to have an omelet!
K- So I'll get something else!
When I came back, they each had an omelet.
My rice didn't hit the spot, and the eggs looked good, with fat, juicy prawns in the mix, so I followed suit. What I had failed to notice, and they had failed to tell me, was that along with, (more correctly- adhering to), the egg and seafood, was a mysteriously glutinous substance.
T- Erm.. Guys... What's this?
K- Jen reckons it's some kind of doughy stuff
T- Are you sure?
At this point, I should have left the question standing. If I had another suspicion, I should have kept it to myself. My permanent calorie deficit inverted the usual dietary concerns, and Kieran's congenital skinniness (and being a boy) kept him from caring, but I should have realised the mentally destabilising effect the following four words would have on Jenna:
T- It looks like fat.
T-Well it's all clear and stringy. Does dough go gooey like this?
Jenna slid her half-empty plate across the table.
J-it can't be fat. There's a sign on the cart that says they don't even use cooking oil!
T- fair enough. Although... if you had big lumps of fat, you wouldn't neces-
K-I'm sure it's not fat. Look, it's doughy. Stringy, glutinous dough.
J- I feel sick.
T- We can resolve this quite simply. All the ingredients are in those pots- we can just look.
J- You look.
The pot that didn't contain eggs or prawns was full of small, white, 5mm cubes of indeterminate origin. Not totally unlike lard. Jenna was looking green though.
T- I'm not sure. Kieran, you have a look.
K- It, erm... it could be fat...
J- Oh god. How much did I eat? That was most of the plate! It was only a one-egg omelet! How many calories is a plate of fat? Oh god. I want to be sick. Can we, can we please go back? Can we walk back instead of taking the tube?
Fortunately Kieran has an infallible sense of direction and Jenna was motivated, so we crossed most of the city pretty quickly, stopping occasionally to take photos, or to mentally revisit the scene of the crime.
K- It can't have been fat. Not that much.
T- You're right, it was something else. It was just exactly like fat
J- Oh god
For the next two days Jenna had a distracted, haunted look in her eyes. She sent me an email from Singapore airport's free internet terminals, where she'd had time to do one google search before their plane departed.
It was dough.