Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tales from a barfly - Singapore

It was 9pm and I only had one hour to spare before my train departed Singapore for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I had no intention of spending my remaining minutes pint-deep in a bar, but when my new friend Raj offered - who was I to refuse? Raj was staying at the same hotel as me and recommended a bar called across the street. Through looking for employment in town, Raj had come to know two of the staff members quite well. Their names were Ram & Jay.

Jay was the bar's resident comedian. He had an infectious laugh, precise comedic timing and an ability to split your sides with laughter. He told jokes, but his true talent was in reciting stories, he had the gift of the gab. I can honestly say that of all the places in the world, I would have never expected to be swapping stories on weed in Singapore. After all, this is a country that enforces the death penalty if you're caught with more than 15g, a measly half-ounce!

I still recall fondly the time my friend Tim told me of his wild drunken night in Singapore. He was training with the Australian Army, doing jungle survival treks in nearby Brunei. On leave, he passed out in a cab after a night of drunken revelry, to find himself in a prison cell, chained to the wall and undergoing a blood test without his prior knowledge. He signed a fake name on the registrar (Daffy Duck) but luckily had no illegal drugs in his system, as that would be grounds for immediate deportation.

The Singapore I know, is one in which jaywalking can land a man in jail, chewing gum is illegal (now available in pharmacies only) and having an opinion is considered dangerous. I remember a joke from a book called 'Dark Star Safari' on the topic of Singapore...

* 3 men walk into a bar. One man is from Sudan, one is from India and one is from Singapore.
The bartender asks the men a question, "In your opinion, what is the nutritional value of beef?"
- The Sudanese man replies, "what is nutritional value?"
- The Indian man replies, "what is beef?"
- The Singaporean man replies, "what is an opinion?"

I told Jay that the previous night I thought I could smell marijuana smoke. I intended this remark to be dismissed, but no. "Yeah yeah, you can find it here. You just gotta know where to look," he replied. He went on to tell me a story involving a dealer's paranoia, "We went to see our dealer lah. We were broke and just had $5 to spend," he said. "We made eye contact and approached him slowly."

Things changed suddenly when a black car with tinted windows appeared out of nowhere. Jay and his friends stood still while the dealer bolted, leaving behind a hefty brick of compressed weed. Jay went on to tell the patrons of the bar (myself, Raj and an unnamed Irishmen) that he took the brick home, and for the next month did nothing but smoke it. In the process he lost his job, lost his apartment and in what is perhaps the funniest part of the story - he lost his girlfriend too. While this would ordinarily be the saddest part, it's laughable as Jay broke up with her over the phone and then passed it around so all of his friends could tell her too. He said he remembered nothing of this foggy month, and called her up weeks after this incident. She told him what happened and his reply was curt "oh, so I guess it's over then."

He also told a tale of what it was like in the army. Singapore enforces conscription, and all able-bodied males are required to partake in two full years of service to either the armed forces, police department or civil defense force. They often conducted drug tests, and when they did word would spread and the celebrations would begin. Usually when they underwent a drug test, they would not have to again for a long time so as Jay put it "everybody would smoke bowls."

Seems like Singapore's not so different after all =)

Jay was also a self-proclaimed ladies man, and had pick-up lines in bulk. Although he shared many, I believe this one was the best --->

#1. A man sees a woman at a bar. She is beautiful and therefore constantly hit on, so to make an impression with a girl of this caliber - one must stand out. The man approaches the woman, with a gym bag slung across his shoulder. "Hey there beautiful, how are you?" Alas, she remains silent. He tries again, "I bet you get hit on all the time, am I right?" She shrugs in indifference, and continues to sip her cocktail.

"What if I told you that I had $1,000,000 in cash, in this bag right here?" he says, nudging the bag toward her. Still she doesn't say anything, but she looks up from her drink with interest.
"What if I told you that I'd give you this cash, no questions asked, if you sleep with me?" he asks. She thinks about it, shrugs her shoulders and replies, "Yes, I believe I would."
"OK, so now we've established that you'd have sex for money, let's now negotiate that price."

When I asked him if it ever worked, he shrugged and said 'not every time, but it always gets a laugh."

I felt sad to be leaving my new friends in Singapore. I faced a daunting road ahead which included an overnight train to Kuala Lumpur, another train (8hrs) to Butterworth, ending with a ferry to Penang. I got to Penang at about 4pm and my first impressions of the place were rather bleak. I forced myself to give it another chance though, after all - how accurate can a first impression be? Especially since I'd spent close to 24 hours traveling, was weighed down with luggage and hadn't eaten since Singapore...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Soaring Singapore

I touched down in Changi Airport at about 3am this morning. Once again my inability to sleep on a plane has left me irritable and fatigued, not to mention downright anti-social. 

Although I was expecting it, nothing can ever truly prepare you for that sudden impact of searing heat and humidity. Singapore is 1.5 degrees north of the Equator, a fact that is branded into visitors each and every time they dare to step outside. While most locals hide from the sun and embrace air-conditioning at any given opportunity, not everyone is so lucky (see below).

In new suburbs like Marina Bay (built on land reclaimed from the sea), cranes loom while construction sites fill the field of vision in every possible direction. Exhausted and overworked labourers bathe in whatever shade they can find, before returning to work on building yet another shopping mall - Marina Bay Sands. It is said the national sport of Singapore is shopping, followed closely by eating. Shopping malls are a great place to people watch, and although Marina Bay Sands is still under heavy construction, the industrial air-conditioning was already working at full capacity, while the food outlets were about the only shops in operation. I found this to reflect the three essential pillars of Singaporean society; shopping, eating and air-con.

Singapore has also been referred to as a 'little bit of the west, in the far east.' If you confine your visit to just hotel swimming pools, shopping malls and Sentosa Island - that is what you'll find. However, taking just a short stroll down Serangoon road in the Little India district, you will find yourself in another world. The aromas wafting from competing restaurants are a pungent partnership between incense, tropical fruit and a variety of fresh spices.

After promising several taxi drivers to give it a go, I find myself at Gokul Vegetarian Restaurant at 19 Upper Dixon road. Although the restaurant is packed, I find no other westerners present - ALWAYS a good sign :) The clientele is local, with traditional saris mingling alongside designer sunglasses. The decor is simple, if a bit understated, but I soon find that here it is the food that is the spectacle. I order samosa chaat and am not disappointed. The food is heaven sent with an extensive menu including Indian, Nepalese, Chinese and Western cuisine.

After several hours of walking the city streets, I seem to have acquired the magical powers of Alex Mack - the ability to turn myself into water. I opt to escape the heat and utilize Singapore's extensive public transport system, known as the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport). Although I have no sense of direction, I find the MRT to be idiot-proof, if a little overcrowded. While nobody is employed to push and cram people into the carriages, the comparisons to the Tokyo Metro system are highlighted when I leave the Bugis station to find a Mos Burger franchise. I'm reminded of Tom Green's subway monkey hour, and search the menu without luck for the infamous 'ashtray burger.'

Perhaps it's just a regional specialty..