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Posts Tagged ‘singapore’

Travel morgue

I have always professed a great love for traveling with a cultivated fascination for visiting places seldom explored by archetypal tourists. I am rather predictable in my vociferous dislike for visiting national monuments or botanical gardens tucked away a little too neatly under the foul armpits of polluted hill stations. Having been a land scout for nearly six years, I have explored ethereal places such as Yellagiri Hills, Top Slip in Pollachi and exotic parts of Kathmandu. Having spent close to three years in the company of guys who rightfully should be restrained with sedatives and leather straitjackets, I have journeyed to nether regions of Kodaikanal, serene rivers in Kottayam and also taken photographs and collected skeletal remains of exotic starfish as erstwhile souvenirs in sleepy coastal villages en route to Pondicherry. Most of all, having befriended my favourite cousin sister’s hubby (an obsessively adventurous chap) for the greater part of 1997 – 2001, I was willfully led astray to strange jungles near the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, Malai Mahadeswara hills and ghostly stretches of dense vegetation in the Western Ghats.

It’s been nearly a year since I had a proper trip. My business trip to Singapore was a nightmare only rivaled by kidney stone surgery I had to go through the year before. My last visit to Kodaikanal was when I was switching careers and henceforth even consumption of copious quantities of magic mushrooms could not lift the realistic distractions that kept annoyingly fluttering in my mind. I am pretty sure that I have lost a considerable amount of interest in getting out of the city and into the tender arms of quiet destinations. Maybe life has caught up with its gentle worries or perhaps I have simply grown tired of such indulgences. Maybe I just don’t like taking such trips anymore. Whatever it is, one thing is for sure. I am going to do this one more time, if not for reclaiming a distant memory then at least for hitting the pause button on life to send a gentle reminder to self that I once was a traveler.

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And Then There Was Naan

Like I said, most of the streets were dead clean and calm, but also more than a few reeked of fried seafood. That was pretty much the staple diet of Singaporeans. For every person gobbling a bowl of plain rice and squid meat, there was another one nearby digging his chopsticks in unrecognizable parts of some poor fish’s anatomy. The corner shop near my block was a restaurant called Suo-Kee. They mostly served noodles, a variety of mean-looking soups and fish sticks dipped in masala sauce. Spicy masala collected from hell’s fire and brimstone. The sickening part of eating in such restaurants was that the food seemed more alive than cooked. Little pieces of squid were wriggling on the plate and one time I actually wondered if one of these sea-bound critters was frowning at me.

Apparently other options solely included of a chain of Indian restaurants, which served only non-exotic Indian dishes. Anandha Bhavan, Saravana Bhavan, Chettinad and the rest. I didn’t enjoy the food at all; the rice was basmati by breed and rough by texture. The side dishes were tiny in quantity and odorless.

The worst dining experience however was at Mushroom Park. It was an ethnic Taiwanese restaurant where the menu had four black words. Vegetable. Chicken. Mutton. Bacon. Apart from these, all they had were mushrooms. The waiters were devastated when I made it clear that I was neither amused nor impressed by their variety of mushrooms. Only at the end of the meal, which included tedious traditional serving methods, the bacon finally arrived. It just sat there on the plate, terribly upset that it was being shabbily treated. I bet it knew how I felt at this goddam restaurant.

Thoroughly irritated by the evident culinary nightmare, I wandered into a place called Upper Thompson Road. And slyly tucked away behind the pavement was a restaurant known as Banana Leaf. It seemed liked one of those places where people seek to socialize rather than fret about the lack of sauces. But it didn’t matter. If I had the fortitude to walk into Chennai’s Mocha Coffee Pub where IQ points dare to drop beyond sane levels, then Banana Leaf should be a walkover. Right? Well, 45 minutes later, I was munching away at the best dam Naan I have ever tasted. The potato curry didn’t do any harm either!

After my first trip to Mocha, I swore on every dead man’s grave that I would rather stomp on a litter of sick puppies than go there again. Standing outside Banana Leaf, still holding on to the paper tissue…I patiently waited for a moment to let the feeling of doing something right sink in.

Fear Factor

In a country brimming with South Asians, Little India rests uneasily across Chinatown, which is the only other another place capable of vague depravity. Of course, the roads are wider. Little India lies east to the Singapore River and has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted part of the country. Originally this place was a division of colonial Singapore where Indian immigrants would reside under the British policy of ethnic segregation. Now it has become an abode for xenophobic south Indians and paranoid north Indians. The street corners are filled with garbage, saliva stains are liberally found on the walls of nearby buildings and people cross the road without a care in the world.

Several Hindu temples, mosques, and other places of worship can found here without much fuss. The star attraction is however, Mustafa Shopping Centre. It is a gigantic shopping mall, which is open all day, all night and all week. You can buy 56 types of shaving lotion at the stroke of midnight. You can get an aqua massage at 3 in the morning. Russian art-house movies, Robert Plant’s Road To Timbuktu album, skull necklaces, herbal cough syrups, professional cameras, plasma screen television sets, leather belts, nutmeg chocolate syrup, ‘I Love Singapore-Lah’ T-shirts and so much more.

I visited the shopping centre every other day. If not to see what other Bill Murray DVDs I could buy, then at least to take a break from whiskey & cigarettes.

Chuck That And All Those

I did a lot of things in Singapore that would have cured insomnia if given a chance. It was actually a business trip. I had to do make deals with fat men, drink their stupid herbal tea and sign papers. Basically doing things, which didn’t did not fit into my overall scheme for life. But I don’t want to write about it. An uncle also accompanied me for the trip. I stayed in his apartment and he left after 3 days. I also don’t want to write about him.

Finally I saw a Chuck Norris film on a local channel. I definitely don’t want to write about that.

Little Man In Big China

Chinatown is located in the larger district of Outram. Since the largest ethnic breed in Singapore is the Chinese (75% of the population), Chinatown is considerably less crowded than it previously was. But it still

bears the most frequent resemblance to all things weird and Chinese. It is also here where I tasted for the very first time – snake meat. It tasted like chicken.

It has several sub-districts, most of which are sprinkled with shopping malls and more shopping malls. The sheer size of the consumer market here is beyond huge, it is scary.

Evidently each shopping mall looked as though it was cloned from the fabric of the one next to it. All of them were so dam similar. After walking for a good 3 hours and exploring the place to death, I stumbled upon two stores, which would have kick-started a puberty revolution in Chennai. Condom Fantasy was one, which sold…er…condoms.

The other store was XXX Store For Adults. And if you look below the store sign, there is banner, which proudly proclaims “No Porn Magazines, X-rated Movies or Sex Service”. A couple of kids were standing outside this store and exchanging high-fives and nodding their heads in glee. Minutes later, it sunk in. No X-rated films. They ran like the fucking wind.

Routines Amidst Ruins

I hate Chennai because of all the routines that I have to physically and mentally go through. Funnily…actually sadly enough, routines were what saved me from Singapore’s clutches. None of my routines clashed with the ones of locals. Not on any level. They did their thing and I did mine. I would normally wake up from reading at around 8.30 in the morning, get freshened up, go to 7/11 and drink copious amounts of cold coffee, go back to the room and smoke a cigarette, walk out of the door once again and visit places where I have never been before. Most of the places disappointed my sense of adventure, but that did not stop me from doing it again and again. Mostly I missed lunch and had a softy chocolate ice cream instead.

Evening coffee would be replaced by that golden liquid gently spilling from Mr Johnny Walker and more often than not; dinner would solely consist of butter-smeared bread slices accompanied by more whiskey. Then came the promenade into unknown regions of Ang Mo Kio as several cigarettes were puffed away on cue. 7/11 again for more coffee and then back to reading until the next morning. Not exactly a schedule packed with eagerness but certainly a package deal, which stopped me from committing multiple acts of self-mutilation.

Hell Awaits

The return flight to Chennai was scheduled to take-off at 8.25 am. I got up at 3.30 am, took an uncomfortably cold bath and rushed to the airport at 4.30 am. I was the first passenger to check-in the baggage and also on the first line at the immigration counter. And then I shopped for liquor, beads and books. In-between I found ample time to sit at their lounge and guzzle down three Screwdrivers.. Vodka and orange juice did wonders to the bright colours of the Changai Airport.

The waiting lobby was filled with irate businessmen, enthusiastic families still clicking photos and lots of foreigners wondering how the rest of the world would treat them.

After 45 minutes of delay, the flight took to the skies. I closed my eyes and knew what I was going to do when I reached Chennai. I smiled a bit and wondered what effect it might have on me after 12 days.

Upon arriving at the Chennai Airport, I took a taxi back home. The taxi driver was a chatty sort of a fellow, so I told him a bit about Singapore and how clean and boring it was. He heard all of this with great intent and eventually distracted himself thoroughly with a little help from a few ladies standing at the bus stop.

Somewhere along the way near the Ashok Nagar Pillar, a speeding ambassador car crashed into a biker, sending him head first onto a lorry parked at the corner of a crowded road. In what was probably the biggest mistake in his life, the driver reversed the car and tried to make a getaway. A mob of people ran towards the car, pulled the driver out and proceeded to beat the living hell out of him.

The taxi driver turned back to look at me and he said, “Saar, nambha ooru kaete poghidhe saar, neengo Singapore kay poidingo, Saar ” (“Our city is going down the drain, you should go back to Singapore”).

A tiny voice briefly echoed inside my head…I really fucking cannot-lah.

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La-la land, part 1

Run Like Hell

The flight to Singapore was scheduled to take-off at 1.25 pm. At ten minutes past 1, I was stuck in traffic near Guindy. It was hopeless. This was supposed to be my first trip away from India and I wasn’t even going to be on it. Or so I thought without even bothering to consider the abysmal standards of Indian Airlines. Of course there was a delay. Thirty-minutes too. Sometimes it pays to be a part of something that sucks.

On-Board, Very Bored

I am a frequent flyer and accordingly, each flight has been worse than the previous one. My school trip to Calcutta in 1992 was the least frightful despite the airhostesses of Indian Airlines bearing uncanny resemblance to Goddess Kali. And after that, I have traveled in Jet Aiways, Kingfisher, Paramount Air Deccan, all of which did nothing but increase the complexities of my phobias. Perhaps I am being a bit hard on Jet.

Forward to July 2006…and here I was on-board the Indian Airlines. A jackhammer sound followed by a feverish vibration signaled the take-off. I closed my eyes and wished that I were in pretty place. Surrounded by waterfalls, meadows and all that feel-good shit. And we were up and away.

In what could have only been a direct result of utter boredom, I eagerly waited for the complimentary bar service and then proceeded to take many abdominal risks by consuming four glasses of whiskey, the first three with soda and last one with nothing but a mischievous glee. I woke up only a few minutes before we landed. I was supposed to be excited. Instead I had a headache and an intense craving for aspirin. Helen Keller once said, “One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.” Ah what the hell did she know? She was blind, deaf and mute. Probably not very perceptive either.

Not-So-Fast

My first sight of Singapore was glorious. The sheer enormity of Changi Airport (and its deliriously satisfying Liquor Mart), the moonlit buildings outside and the air-conditioned taxis were a feast for the eyes. Yes, it is true. The roads over there are incredibly clean. Even the goddam tar gleams as if it has been polished for eons. A sad sight it was to see these speed demons go to sleep on the highway.

The traffic flow is as smooth as Barry White’s music. But none of the vehicles fancied taking advantage of such. Everyone seemed to be in bumper-car mode without actually bumping each other. They drove in fine lines and religiously adhered to speed limits. My initial reaction was “Man, those maniacal drivers in Chennai would never be so law-abiding”. Somewhere between the first pop of aspirin and my first sight of the Singapore National Stadium, a voice went off in my head, “Neither would I”.

Ang Mo Kio or Bust

It took almost two days for me to pronounce it without sounding like I had swallowed a diminutive China doll. Ang Mo Kio was where I was at and where I was going to be for the next two weeks. It was an apartment complex, which was stretched to a suburban part of Singapore. It was freakin’ huge, man. I was in block 320. Not a day passed by without wondering if there were actually three hundred and twenty other blocks. I never bothered to ask cause I had more pressing concerns.

Each apartment had a couple of restaurants, at least one ice-cream shop, various clothes stores and a line of ATM machines. The restaurant in my block served the worst rice I had ever eaten. Their two specialties were Duck Tail Porridge and Fish Head Soup. As I later discovered, both the dishes stayed true to their names and mostly contained inedible body parts of mutilated creatures.

7/11 All Day, All Week

7-11 is an international conglomerate, which operates the largest chain of convenience stores in twenty countries. In 1946, it took roots in Texas only to be greeted with lukewarm response from those dam rednecks. After a few years, it slowly grew to be recognizable and by the year 1991, a Japanese-based company Ito-Yokado purchased the majority interest from its original owner Southland Corporation. Staying loyal to the creepy high productivity standards of their fellow chinks from the land of rising sun, the company men increased the availability of branded commodities and made sure that the 7/11 chain of stores were open for twenty-four hours per day and seven days per week.

For me, most of this was trivial. I didn’t care if they were redefining and enhancing consumer convenience. All I cared was that they had freshly-baked bread, cigarettes (mint-flavoured ones but still…), readymade cheese & chilli sandwiches and chilled cans of coffee. The availability of beer would have been a further blessing if not for the horrendously low amount of alcohol in them. They had vodka too. But it was blue in colour with a picture of a kid on the side of the bottle.

Things were starting to look a bit creepy.

Lights Out

I like cigarettes. I really do. And dam those Singaporean bastards for only selling Lights and Menthol. Everywhere single one I struggled to smoke tasted as thought it was stuffed with peppermint and flavourless chips of wood. Even the packets contained help line numbers and grotesque images of body parts infected with cancerous cells.

By now it was apparent that this country had declared many wars on misfits, a category, which unfortunately included smokers who prefer their cigarettes to have nicotine-levels high enough to cause some sort of lung damage.

The Apartment

The apartment was spacious enough to accommodate a herd of rhinos. The room, in which I was in and could not get out of, was barely large enough to offer extra leg space for a family of lemurs. The bed was small. A table fan was breathing heavily in the other corner of the room, trying its best to blow air into an otherwise unworthy cause. It was almost three days before I discovered that there was a spongy slide mattress under the bed.

It was comfortable. Many hours were spent as I leaned my head against the pillow and read quietly into the night. Sleep, of course, was an entirely different matter.

Turn The Page

I would have sold one of my kidneys for a good night’s rest. For 2 weeks, I tossed and turned. The trick, I thought, was in closing my eyes. Alas, even art forsake me in this dutiful battle to get some fucking sleep. Books saved me during waking hours. Them and Johnny Cash.

Mostly I read through the night. So without further ado, I proudly bring to you, the saviours of Singapore Nights…Gregory David’s Shantaram, Douglas AdamsSalmon Of A Doubt, P J Rourke’s All The Trouble In The World, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Tom Holt’s Snow White And The Seven Samurai and Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Test.

And when I could not bring myself to read another page, I softly hummed Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire to myself. I did it almost everyday. In a week’s time, I began singing it loudly enough to arouse the curiosity of a toddler who often sauntered in the floor’s veranda.

This kid had green eyes and his mom (either divorced or back after serving jail time for swinging a pickaxe at her hubby’s face) was really beautiful. She mostly wore bright-blue jeans and her face expressed fewer emotions than mine.

And if my imagination had been on vacation, I would have probably made eye contact with one of them.

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