Backpacking Bonus 12: Singapore, The City-State Island Country

Singapore is a city-state and an island and a country–all in one. Singapore is the capital of Singapore. Until I actually visited Singapore, I was under the impression (as many North Americans are, I realized) that Singapore was just a big city in one of the other Asain countries. While it is an island, backpacking and being barefoot on the beach aren’t really the norm here; it’s more like a rolling-luggage, business attire, and top-of-the-line technological device kind of place (similar to Bangkok) with easy access to Starbucks, Burger King, Subway, McDonalds, and 7 Eleven on almost every block. Situated right smack dab in the middle of everything in Southeast Asia, Singapore is in a prime location and has become the main transportation hub for all of Asia, serving as the gateway to practically every country on this side of the globe. Most people are usually just passing through, using the airport only as a stopover before continuing on their way. Oh, and the airport–I could write a whole guidebook just on the fancy-schmancy Singapore airport! It is fully equipped with restaurants, beds, free use of internet on public computers, lounge areas with TVs, orchid and butterfly gardens, and even a rooftop swimming pool.

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The Singapore airport has its very own orchid garden and koi pond, among other lavish amenities scattered throughout its three terminals.

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Despite the fact that Singapore is an island, backpacks, bikinis, and bare feet are not commonly sighted on its streets; instead there are people in suits with rolling luggage or briefcases heading to work on paved roads and organized transportation systems.

Despite being surrounded by impoverished countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia that are struggling to stimulate and stabilize their economies in spite of rampant governmental corruption, Singapore is actually considered a “first world” country. It has one of the highest GDPs in the world and, thanks to the government, the entire country puts high value on education, sports, the arts, nature, and innovation. Singapore is on the leading edge of both technological and architectural advancement. This place really has its ducks in a row and one could say the people who live here have got it made.

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Valued aspects of Singaporean society can be seen on its currency: “Education” on the S$2 bill, “Garden City” on the S$5 bill, “Sports” on the S$10 bill, and “Arts” on the S$50 bill.

A fascinating UTOPIA with its own sets of rules and SYSTEMS in Asia

Because of how expensive everything is here, Singapore isn’t usually on the radar for most backpackers. The currency is Singapore dollars and the exchange rate is $1 US =1.42 Singapore dollars, stacking up nicely against both the Australian dollar and the Canadian dollar, which are about the same rate, if only slightly stronger than Singapore currency. With their budgets in mind, most people traveling in Southeast Asia don’t even think twice about skipping Singapore, especially because it is so small, and if they do go to Singapore, it is often only for a one-nighter due to a layover for a flight. While I wasn’t planning to have a long-term relationship with Singapore, I definitely wanted more than a one-night-stand because I am fascinated by how this country became the way it is and I wanted to dig a little deeper into the inner workings of the place. So I booked 5 nights (still not very long, but enough time to get comfortable with the place).

The very first thing I noticed was how easy and functional the metro train system, called MRT, was. For ~$1.50, it took me only about 45 minutes to get halfway across the country once I left the airport. Singapore is an extremely tiny country with an area of only 694 sq km which a person could drive his car across in only an hour and a half to two hours, but still, the public transportation system was impressively structured and well-organized. It was so easy to get around–almost too easy. On one hand it was a relief because there was practically no stress involved, but on the other hand, I felt like travelers as well as the general public are spoon-fed on a regular basis: the overhead voice on the train AND a light-up map even indicate to people on which side of the train the doors are going to open at the approaching station!

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This colorful map of Singapore is a guide showing both the highly organized MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system as well as some top tourist attractions.

Geographically located very near to the equator, Singapore has a hot and humid climate year-round. Besides some rain in December and January, there are no seasons. The average temperature during the five days I was there was 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This constant steady weather is a contributing factor to the feeling of sameness that permeates the calm, quiet streets of this country that is sometimes referred to as a “bubble” society.

One analogy I’ll render for Singapore is the following: imagine drawing a big line around San Francisco, cutting it off of California (thus making it an island), then calling it a country and letting it have its own government, currency, culture, etc. Imagine the effect that it would have on the rest of California and the attitude that might develop in the people who are “in” or “out” of the San Francisco bubble. I’ll further explore this dynamic later on in this chapter…

When I arrived to Singapore, I didn’t have the best luck finding the place I wanted to stay (it was under construction for remodeling), so I ended up at what I will refer to as a grunge hostel and, and checked in with resolve to find a better spot the following day. I won’t waste space on the details of the “grunge,” but something positive that came out of my stay there was that I made friends with an interesting Indonesian woman named Gokna who was also on a backpacking trip.

Over breakfast the next morning, we discussed how our lifestyles would have to change while we were in Singapore compared to how we had both been living in other countries we had visited. In order to get by on a daily budget within our normal spending limits, we decided that during our time in Singapore, there would be no manicures/pedicures, no massages, no meals at fancy restaurants, we would be staying in hostel dorm rooms as opposed to booking private rooms in guesthouses or hotels, we would seek out as many “free” activities as we could, and there would be absolutely NO shopping. We joked that we could at least drink the tap water so we would save money from not having to buy drinking water!

Later that morning, I made the switch from the grunge hostel to Five Stones Hostel which was really nice and very modern compared to what one would expect for a hostel. The restrooms were even equipped with built-in hairdryers which I considered a luxury as I hadn’t blow-dried my hair in nearly three months by that point! In a five-story building, I stayed in a 10-bed “mixed” dorm room (because all the female-only ones were full) and paid 28 Singaporean dollars (~$20) per night for it. It ended up being all dudes plus me in one room. But I didn’t care about that because everyone was minding their own business and I hardly spent any time in the room–the place to hang out was definitely the hostel lounge! Not only did the lounge have a large kitchen with Ikea mugs, plates, and bowls, plus utensils, tables, a refrigerator, toasters, a microwave, and long countertops (where guests could help themselves to a free breakfast spread in the mornings and coffee and tea anytime), but it also had a relaxing area with cushy couches and pillows, public converter plug strips, a TV with access to a stack of movies/DVDs, free wifi, and a radio that was playing Ryan Seacrest’s Top 40 Countdown over the weekend. I didn’t even feel like I was in Asia.

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The lounge at Five Stones Hostel made for a great working space because it was “fully loaded” with sofas, wifi, converter plugs, TV, DVDs, tables, a full kitchen, and even Top 40 hits playing on the radio in the kitchen.

As I walked around the city, I never once encountered people who were bothering me or trying to get my money as a “hand-out.” I didn’t see any beggars with the exception of one crippled guy which led me to believe that these people are not coming from a place of lack. My observations of Singapore by just walking up and down the streets through town was that is it a quiet, peaceful, safe place where people mind their own business. However, everything I saw “on the surface” made me curious about what was underneath and how things got to be the way they are. Luckily, I had the opportunity to dig a little deeper with some local Singaporeans, the first of whom, Stephanie, was a girl I had met at the very beginning of my trip during my very first week in Thailand while I was at S1 hostel in Bangkok. (Facebook is great for keeping in touch with travel strangers!!)

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Strolling the streets of Singapore at night was not only safe but also provided some spectacular views such as these skyscrapers dazzling just above the Singapore River.

On my second full day in Singapore, I made plans to meet up with Stephanie for lunch as she offered to introduce me to some of Singapore’s traditional food. We met up at a specified MRT station, then walked together a few blocks to the Maxwell Food Centre, which is a huge “hawker” food area meaning that the place is filled with rows and rows of food and drink stalls serving all kinds of dishes that are prepared on the spot and offered at cheap prices. Stephanie was on a mission to pick the most well-known Singaporean dishes she could find which included an oyster omelet (my least favorite–I couldn’t handle more than a few bites!), fried carrot cake (unlike the sweet dessert that comes to mind, this dish consists of radish cake stir-fried with eggs and preserved radish–it was actually quite tasty despite the squishy texture), and, Singapore’s national dish, chicken rice (boiled or roast chicken served with rice that has been cooked in chicken stock and a variety of sauces–soy sauce, chili sauce, and a sweet sauce–that enhance the flavors; this dish was definitely my favorite, perhaps for its simplicity).

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At Maxwell Food Centre, lines of people at each of the neighboring food stalls is typical in the middle of the day; people enjoy their lunches at small open tables set up like a cafeteria.

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Left: Stephanie posing with Singapore’s national dish, Chicken Rice–here, drizzled with some savory sauces. Right: Stephanie, about to introduce me to two other Singaporean dishes: fried carrot cake and an oyster omelet.

To top it all off, which there was hardly space for, we had almond-flavored bean curd (soy base) for dessert. I noticed there is a lot of sugar and carbs in the Singaporean diet and in beverages such as bandung, a rose-flavored sugary milk drink that looks like pink medicine but is ridiculously sweet; I passed on the hot pink bandung, but I couldn’t stay away from the bubble milk tea anytime I passed by a stand selling it! Sugar could be consumed on every corner, however, I felt like I did not have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables while I was on this city-island-country. While I was beyond grateful to Stephanie for guiding me through this local experience, my tummy was totally out of sorts and stayed that way throughout the duration of my time in Singapore.

I was excited about talking to Stephanie about the history and current state of Singapore, and I appreciated that she was so willing to share the local perspective with me. The first time I met her, she had mentioned that the unofficial, but spoken, language of Singapore is English, but that the “official” language–on record, at least–is Malay. This time she went on to explain that Singapore used to be a part of Malaysia, then she shared how and why Singapore became its own country. I was totally impressed by how well-educated she was about the history, government, people, and function of her country! Granted, Singapore is tiny and “young,” having gained independence only 50 years ago in 1965, but still, she knew the low-down. (I supplemented what I learned from Stephanie with additional research on my own as well as information that was shared with me another Singapore resident, Adam, whom I met a few days later.)

Originally developed by the British in the early 1800s, Singapore has always been a region where people from all over the world have flocked to; Britain pretty much lost their stronghold there by the time the second world war was over. By the late 50s and early 60s, many Chinese people were living in Singapore and that was during a time when every nation feared being infiltrated and taken over by Communists so Malaysia was on high alert. A man by the name of Lee Kuan Yew (whom I will refer to as Lee from now on, just like Singaporeans do), came into power as the leader of a socialist party in 1959. Fearing Communism in addition to having conflicting beliefs from Singapore’s new leaders, the Malay Federation kicked Singapore out in 1965. Lee seized the opportunity to turn the region into an industrialized, independent, and successful country.

Lee, who pursued his studies in Europe when he was young, was a brilliant man and a great diplomat. Often referred to as a benevolent dictator, Lee imposed strict rules on the people of Singapore, but despite the tight governmental regulation, everyone seemed to know that he always had the people’s interest at heart. He transformed a struggling, abandoned region into a strong country with a booming economy, an educated population, a very large middle class, and practically no poverty or crime. It is rare that anyone has a chance to build a new country from scratch these days, but by treating the country as if it were a small start-up company in the business world, Lee succeeded in endowing Singapore with the capacity to not only survive, but also thrive on its own.

The population of Singapore consists mostly of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian–but each race is not equally represented. It is broken down roughly into the following percentages: 76% Chinese, 12% Malay, 9% Indian, and the remaining ~3% Eurasian or “other.” English is the mandatory first language taught in schools.

Referring back to the San Francisco scenario I created earlier in the chapter, can you imagine how California would feel if it kicked San Francisco out, then San Francisco became a raging success of a place and kept all of its wealth to itself? California might try to pull San Francisco back in so it could have access to all the resources that San Francisco had for itself and its small bubble of a society–and the people who are a part of San Francisco wouldn’t really want to share, they probably wouldn’t want to leave, and they might be wary of anyone else to tried to get into their safe, successful society. That is Singapore in a nutshell.

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There is a lot of wealth in Singapore which is evident by all the fancy cars up and down the streets, like this yellow Lambourghuini.

Sandwiched between two very large and dominantly Muslim countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore has to stay on its toes in order to maintain its position, status, and safety. Strategically, it keeps strong relationships with both China and the United States, and it carefully monitors who its decision-makers in the government are: there is an extensive screening process so any person who might be associated with someone who could potentially drop an explosive device is forbidden to be in a position of power.

The population of the country is controlled so that a Chinese majority is maintained. Stephanie said, “Singapore needs a healthy amount of Chinese to maintain status.” The way I understood that was regarding both Singapore’s business relationship with China (and tourists from China) as well preventing Malays or Indians to rise to power, posing a threat of being merged back into Malaysia or being taken over by a different country. Stephanie explained that the Chinese population isn’t growing as quickly as the government would like for it to be which is due mostly to the Chinese cultural practice of a “one-child family,” whereas the Indian birth rate is slightly higher, but the Malay birthrate is significantly higher than that of the Chinese. When I asked Adam about this, he further explained that the Singaporean government has an immigration plan, specifically for the Chinese, set in motion for the next several years in order to counter the current changing population trends and maintain that Chinese majority.

Stephanie’s one complaint regarding the influx of Chinese immigrants–and she said she was speaking on behalf of most Singaporeans–was that most of the Chinese come to the country and regard it only as an extension of China, as opposed to seeing it as a country of its own. She said it is frustrating because most of the Chinese immigrants don’t even bother trying to learn English even though it is technically the official language of Singapore.

On that note, I’ll point out that Singapore is very obviously a multiracial and multicultural place and the dynamics of the society reflect that. The government is run like a business and does not allow religion to infiltrate how it functions, however people are free to practice how they like. Religious beliefs are just as diverse as the racial demographics, and there is a high level tolerance among the citizens that each person has his or her own beliefs. As religion does not interfere with Singapore’s “secular” statehood, another conspicuous trend I noticed is that homosexuality is widely accepted and people are very openly gay in public (although people don’t run around in the nude as they do in San Francisco sometimes!). There are so many different people and places, cultures and races in Singapore that it is difficult to discern who is a tourist and who is not.

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St. Andrew’s Cathedral is beautifully lit up at night in the center of Singapore’s Colonial District, just blocks away from Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples. Religious tolerance and freedom of practice is a characteristic of society in Singapore.

Another thing that Adam and Stephanie both touched on regarding Singaporean society is that the government has created a “culture of self.” Everyone is expected to take care of their own needs, work hard, and be accountable for themselves. The government isn’t going to bail anyone out of a personal problem or pick anyone up off the ground if he loses his job or isn’t working. While there is a great free healthcare system, there is neither welfare nor pension plans set into place. Citizens have a personal required savings account to which money from their paycheck is automatically transferred and can be used in retirement. These governmental policies have resulted in a country with citizens who are relatively responsible and self-sufficient; however, some downsides include the inevitable development of self-centeredness (a “I worked for my money so it’s mine–why should I share?” attitude) as well as the unfortunate situation of very elderly people still having to work into old age.

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Because the government has neither welfare systems nor pension plans, it is normal that elderly people have to continue to work menial jobs into their old age like this man here who cleans tables at the Maxwell Food Centre.

Singapore faces other problems, of course, just as every other country has a set of its own. First of all, Singapore is a small country and an island-country at that, plus its practically perfect society, nearly nonexistent crime, and steady, warm weather are huge draws to attract people to live and work there; consequently, Singapore faces overpopulation issues. What’s the best solution for running out of land? Make more of it, of course! A small area of Singapore is reclaimed land, meaning that the government “filled in” the sea with cement, rocks, clay, dirt, etc. until they had enough land they wanted to expand the country. (Land reclamation is practiced all over the world, especially in swampy areas [like New Orleans], near rivers and coastal areas, and by bays [for example, San Francisco and Alameda].) Another solution to the population growth in Singapore is the creation of housing flats, where many families can exist “vertically” on the same small plot of land. The government assists couples and families with housing subsidies for these flats.

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This building is an example of the flats in which many families in Singapore live.

A seasonal climate concern in Singapore is that the city-state becomes shrouded in a heavy haze in September and October due to forest slash-and-burn practices for palm oil in Indonesia. This is a HUGE environmental concern and citizens can only protect their health by wearing face masks out in public or remaining indoors during this time. While out to lunch with Stephanie, some girls she knew were on their lunch break from work and joined us at our table. They were discussing the haze and I laughed when they suggested a solution for it: the government should just build a bubble around Singapore up into the sky so that way Singaporeans could continue to have access to fresh, clean Singaporean air. In that case, Singapore would literally be a bubble society with a physical manifestation of its protected utopia!!

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The haze from the slash-and-burn fires in Indonesia was so thick in Singapore in October that it made it difficult to view the sunset from a restaurant on the 55th floor (the top floor) of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

Strict laws are enforced by tight governmental regulation. A person will be fined for selling chewing gum, however it is okay for people to chew it (for example, if they acquired it while traveling abroad). No smoking is allowed in most areas, although it is okay to smoke on the street. There are fines for littering. Pornography is illegal, however prostitution is allowed. And the strictest, most heavily enforced law of all: drug trafficking is punishable by death.

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In order to maintain a society that is mostly free of crime and violence, Singapore enforces strict laws both on its citizens and visitors. For example, anyone who enters the country get this notice in their passport: “Warning – Death for Drug Traffickers under Singapore Law.”

All of these regulations have been put in place in order to make the country clean, safe, and free. Of course, this level of security and stability offers a very different kind of freedom. People are told what the rules are and they choose to abide by them in exchange for an easy, happy lifestyle. It seems that there is a pre-meditated solution for any possible case scenario that could occur in someone’s daily life. There are instructions and directions posted on signs, walls, and doorways. People don’t really have to think for themselves because everything has already been thought out for them and kindly dictated to them. In one sense, I liked how easy it was to just “be” in Singapore, but on the flip side, I sort of felt like there was a lot of hand-holding going on which doesn’t leave much room for individuality and independence. The society has been trained to trust and listen to the government. Interestingly, the government places a high value on educating its people unlike some of the notorious dictators of history who monopolized education systems in order to brainwash their people; despite the fantastic education they receive, Singaporeans are not likely to buck the system.

Singapore is in a constant state of seeking balance between Asian culture and western culture. It is sort of a blend, but with a young population, I suspect western culture will dominate. The younger generation is admittedly pampered and could easily identify with the traits of “millennials” all over the world. It was their parents who endured through the country’s difficulties and their parents who worked hard for the money that now supports the children–many of whom live at home with their parents until they are married because the housing market is so competitive. While attending sports games or community/art events are popular pastimes for these young people, a lot of the free time activities revolve around shopping and eating, which is indicative of the consumeristic society that Singapore has become. (Consequently, waste management is another issue that the country faces, especially because it is an island, but I won’t get into that here.)

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The malls in Singapore began putting up holiday decor by early November in preparation for the Christmas shopping season. (I snapped this photo during my third trip to Singapore that was an overnight layover.)

I noticed in Singapore that people seemed to have a lot of time and resources to dedicate to fashion. I saw people with blue and purple streaks through their hair, pink tips, or partially shaved heads with long hair on the rest of their head. Some people were very creative with their make-up, splashing all colors of eyeshadow on their eyelids or using eyeliner to design unique patterns around their eyes. And then there were the shoes: platform high-tops, neon sneakers, studded boots, and strappy heels. Fashion is a popular avenue that people use to express their individuality here.

For anyone who has seen or read The Hunger Games, the comparison I can make is that Singapore is very much like “the Capital.” In a place where abundance is everywhere and the people are shielded from many of the rest of the world’s problems, their priorities are different. Relationships seem like they are on the surface. I felt like something was missing. It’s not the people’s fault by any means–this is all they know. But I made a strong association between hardship and depth while I was there: where there is no struggle, there is no depth. I am not saying that Singapore’s people don’t have to struggle; they just have a different set of problems from say, citizens of Nigeria, or Syria, or even their next-door-neighbors in Malaysia.

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At the Krispy Kreme donut shop inside the Singapore airport, I thought that I had never seen so many different options in my life! This is one example of a society that lives in abundance.

From what I have seen and experienced around the world, in my opinion, Singapore is lucky to have a government that works to provide its people with a great lifestyle, as opposed to having a corruption-riddled government like many other countries like the aforementioned. Some people have compared the system in Singapore to George Orwell’s 1984, acknowledging the sort of “Big Brother” control that the government exercises. However, despite the “kind dictatorship,” nobody can deny the leaps and bounds of progress that Singapore has made socially and economically as a country. While maybe it started as a big experiment, similar to how many start-up businesses begin, Lee implemented a great strategy and it worked. Lee had a successor named Goh Chok Tong who began leading the country in 1990, but he stepped down in 2004 so Lee’s son could takeover and continue on the path that Lee laid for the country…

As I learned about and experienced Singapore, I felt conflicted about all of it. On one hand, I thought, “Isn’t this what every country strives for? A nearly perfect society with a big middle class and a thriving economy? A place where people feel safe and happy and can live their lives however they choose–as long as it is within ‘limits’?” But then I come back to those conditions and rules and I can see how all the systems that need to be adhered to in order to maintain “the bubble” can make things seem robotic, reducing the unpredictability that inevitably comes along with the human condition.

If anyone is familiar with the movie Pleasantville or the book called The Giver (one of my favorites!), by Lois Lowry, you may recall that the perfectly functioning societies were described as black and white, illustrating the lifelessness that seems to become normal in these places where safe, systematic, mundane lifestyles are had by all in exchange for protection from hardship, pain, and even feelings. In both of these plot lines, the challenges to these systems come in the form of color, either as a character or an object–a small change that gradually takes over, ultimately leaving the audience to question the humanity of the systems. While I could go on and on about the parallels between Singapore and The Giver, one big difference is that Singapore is actually a very colorful and vibrant place–not at all black and white.

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Singapore is splashed with color in every part of the country. Top: The Elgin Bridge that stretches across the Singapore River is lit in bright rainbow-colored lights each night. Middle: This building in Clarke Quay has all of its window panes painted in bright solid colors. Bottom: These flats in the Colonial District are distinguished by their green, blue, yellow, and red building colors.

After Stephanie and I parted ways that afternoon, I had a call to make and some work to do so I set up shop in an Australian-run Russian bar–the only place around that had functional wifi at the time. It was located in a cute area and walking distance from the Chinatown district. Again, I was reminded of San Francisco by how Singapore has become such a melting pot of cultures within blocks from each other.

Chinatown was everything that could be expected from any other Chinatown: red and gold signs all over, hanging decorations stringed up criss-crossing over the streets, markets, shops, and food stands. After strolling up and down all the streets, I decided to continue my trend of sampling local foods so I opted for some chili crab dumplings. Chili crab is a Singaporean specialty that consists of mud crab cooked in a tomato and chili sauce and it is very tasty!

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Chinatown in Singapore is designed with Chinese-style buildings, red and yellow signs and decorations strung above walkways, and busy markets and shops.

While the dumplings were delicious, I still felt like I needed to eat some veggies since I hadn’t really eaten any fresh produce during the entire day. I went on a hunt for affordable vegetables throughout Chinatown and the best I could find was a plate of green beans at a restaurant. Unfortunately, the green beans were practically swimming in peppercorns and hot chilis. One bite and I nearly turned into a fire-breathing dragon! I suffered through that plate, trying to pick out every single spicy thing, determined to eat those veggies and had to order what I was hoping was a milky drink but was actually made from barley. The restaurant staff didn’t know what to do with me: they didn’t speak English well and I could see that my questions, my changing mind (no drink…just kidding–YES, I NEED A BEVERAGE!!), and the fact that I only ordered a plate of green beans and nothing else frustrated and confused them. I was dying and they couldn’t wait to get me out of their restaurant. (At least that’s how I felt!) They even charged my for the wet wipe that was part of the table setting. It was a miserable experience and I left slightly disappointed and relieved to be out of there.

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This is the plate of green beans that I suffered through in Chinatown; picking out the chilis and trying to avoid the peppercorns was all I could do to avoid the spice, but it was to practically no avail…

At the end of that day, making it three days in a row by that point, my tummy was not happy. (I didn’t mention my bad decision to eat Burger King as soon as I got off the plane on the first day, but that was the first contributing factor!) It was difficult to find fresh fruits and vegetables in Singapore unless I wanted to order a fancy, expensive salad from a restaurant menu. I didn’t even figure out until a future visit to Singapore that there are many grocery stores, but they are actually underground, on lower levels of some major shopping malls. (No wonder I couldn’t find them!) I was frustrated by this because on multiple occasions, I would walk around craving a fresh fruit smoothie and go searching for a place to buy one, but I didn’t want some smoothie concoction with eight super ingredients and special powders and potions–I just wanted some fresh mango blended with ice and poured in a cup. Simple. But my enthusiasm for my smoothie hunt always dissolved into an unsatisfying abandoned wish.

On the following day as I was walking through the MRT station, I spotted a food place called “Salad Box” and immediately entered to find a beautiful display of fresh salad fixings. I had never been so excited to see shredded carrots, bell peppers, corn, shredded beetroot, tomatoes, kidney beans, and feta cheese!! There were many other ingredients, but those are the ones that decorated my lunch and I was so happy with it that I ate it all in near bliss and almost ordered another one for the road. It was affordable as well, costing less than 10 Singaporean dollars.

Self-proclaimed “The Garden City,” Singapore takes a lot of pride in its gardens and all the greenery that has been deliberately placed or conserved throughout the country. There are plants, bushes, trees, and flowers lining sidewalks and city streets in addition to public parks and gardens. The Singapore Botanic Gardens, named an UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site in 2015, was a “must see” on my list, and, knowing how big the place was, I reserved an entire afternoon and part of that evening to walk through and check out all the different areas which were sectioned off into themed gardens including the gingers, orchid garden, frangipanis, medicinal plants, children’s garden, ferns/cover plants, and fragrant garden, set among acres of trees, grass, and plant-lined pathways.

The place was huge and well-designed. Tropical flowers such as orchids and frangipanis were vibrant with life and color. Families were walking around and playing together on the lawns–some were even picnicking around the symphony stage. (That’s right: there is an outdoor symphony stage at the Botanic Gardens!) People were walking their dogs in the late afternoon and they actually had leashes for their pets! This small lifestyle snapshot was an indicator that Singapore is a great place to raise a family.

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Singapore’s famed Botanic Gardens, an UNESCO Cultural Site as of last July, boast acres of lush greenery sprinkled with vibrant flowers such as the hot pink frangipanis (bottom left) and Singapore’s national flower, called Vanda Miss Joaquin (an orchid hybrid, top right), as well as a symphony stage with plenty of lawn space for visitors to relax and enjoy the surroundings.

I stayed at the Botanic Gardens late that day on purpose because the best time to visit the fragrant gardens is after sundown. Here is a fun biology lesson for the day, one I learned during a school trip I took to Ecuador while I was in college and have since been obsessed with sharing every time I get the opportunity: Most plants with white flowers are pollinated by moths. Moths are usually active at night, however, they do not have the best eyesight. Moths are drawn to the light. (Think of how your very own porch lights attract moths at night.) White flower petals reflect more light than any other petal color so naturally they are easier to see at night. In addition, these white flowers emit a strong fragrance in the evening to further assist the moths in discovering the whereabouts of the flowers, thus increasing the chance that the flowers will be pollinated and reproduce. (This is a simplified generalization, but this is what stuck with me from rainforest ecology lessons!) This garden was such a delight to walk through as I sniffed my way through it that evening. Because of their intense aromas, oils from some of these flowers are used in perfumes; for example, oil from the ylang ylang flower is one of the main ingredients in the popular perfume Chanel No. 5. Jasmine and gardenia are also commonly used in commercial fragrances.

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Walking through the fragrant garden in the evening was a delightful experience because the the sweet aromas of the ylang ylang (top right) and other white flowers lingered in the air.

Speaking of scents, an observation I made about Singaporeans was that people actually smelled good–and clean–there. This may seem like an odd thing to notice, but after many experiences traveling and living in rural parts of developing countries, I have grown accustomed to unique smells coming from markets, dead animals, strange foods, and even people. They are not all necessarily bad smells, but they are definitely different. I was taken by surprise when I could actually detect scents such as soap, deodorant, perfume, and cologne while I was in public places in Singapore. (The Chinese couple, sitting in the seats across the aisle from me on a plane during my flight to Singapore, who took turns closing their eyes and spraying 5-7 pumps of perfume directly on their heads, in their faces, and around their necks just might have been the catalysts who launched me into fragrance-observation mode.) In any case, I simply added this to the list of identifying characteristics of the lifestyle in a “westernized” society.

After finding my way out of the Botanic Gardens, I headed to the Ion Orchard Mall. Singapore has large shopping centers and malls all over the place so I made it a point to check out several different shopping areas. Not only did the Ion Orchard Mall awe me with its futuristic architecture, innovative layout, and flashing lights, but it also surprised me with the number of high-end designer stores that lined every level: Gucci, Calvin Klein, Swarovski, L’Occitane, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Aldo, Valentino–you name it! The biggest shocker, however, was that the place was jam-packed with people at 9 o’clock at night on a Saturday in the middle of October. It was ridiculous how busy the place was! Understanding that shopping is a popular pastime in Singapore prevented me from falling over in shock by all of this, though…

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Singapore’s Ion Orchard Mall’s technologically-advanced architecture creates a galactic effect that makes the place seem unreal, like from a movie.

When I passed by Sephora that night, I glanced in at the endless selection of makeup and cosmetic products and it made me realize that I hadn’t done my makeup since before I left for my trip and that there was really no reason for me to go into a makeup store because I had no need for it. I thought about how nice it is to not have to worry about makeup: I don’t have to buy it, I don’t have to carry it with me, and I don’t have to spend any time putting it on or taking it off. It was liberating to acknowledge that I (and anyone really) can get by in life with so few necessities. Adding so much “stuff” into our lives can just complicate them sometimes. (Disclaimer: No criticisms here on makeup or wearers of it–there is definitely a time and place.)

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Singapore has malls and shopping centers all over the place which has inevitably created a consumerism-based society. Victoria’s Secret and a custom-designed dress shop (top and middle) at the Ion Orchard Mall, and the overwhelming shopping experience with a thousand options for everything at the Mustafa Centre (bottom) in Little India.

Overall, Singapore is an expensive place to both live in and travel through. I bought the most expensive 16 oz. glass of cider in my life here at a restaurant on the roof top of the famed Marina Bay Sands hotel (perhaps I was paying more for the ambience and less for the beverage itself), and to stay at the hotel itself–which consists of three skyscrapers with a “ship” spanning across the top of all three of them, has its own casino, and is walking distance from Gardens by the Bay–costs nearly $1,000 (Singaporean) per night for a room! (Marina Bay Sands is an iconic place for Singapore; there is a lot more interesting information about it on Google.) There were many other factors that led me to compare traveling in Singapore to being in Las Vegas, New York, or even Disneyland because each of those places is also known for having eye-catching inventions, colorful light shows, high-end restaurants and shopping centers, and expensive everything else.

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The Marina Bay Sands Hotel, designed with a “ship” spanning across the three hotel towers, is an architectural masterpiece in Singapore.

I thought a lot about what it means to have an easy life versus a simple life while I was here. I do not think that they are one and the same. In Singapore, there is ample opportunity for most people to have an easy life. Having an “easy” life can sometimes pave the way for clutter, noise, and only surface-deep relationships to dominate. I think people who live a simple life discover ways to eliminate most of the noise, “stuff,” and other clutter and drama from their daily lives. Living simply is not the opposite of living easy. It doesn’t equate to having a hard, tortuous path to forge. The difference between living easy and living simply has a lot to do with priorities and choices. I think it is possible to live both an easy life and a simple life at the same time, but if I had to choose, I would pick the simple life as I think it would be richer due to the rawness of it which provides opportunity to struggle, build character, and really learn to connect to other human beings without layers of “stuff”–expectations and other things–blockading the possibility of forming those relationships.

In only five days in Singapore, I collected more friends than I could handle because everyone was so outgoing and looking for other people to do social activities with them. I felt torn between taking time to work on my writing versus researching as much as possible about Singapore (both by exploring the area and talking to people) in those few short days I was there. Then I found myself trying to balance a huge social life! There was a chance I might see Stephanie again, plus there were other new friends from both of the hostels I had been in who expressed interest in hanging out, and lastly, I found out a friend from home was arriving in Singapore the same time I was there and she was trying to meet up with me. It felt like I was back in the States and that feeling stressed me out because I found it difficult to carve out time to write. Dodging time commitments to other people ended up taking a lot of energy, but I managed to balance having nice conversations with new friends with getting that time to myself.

On my last full day in Singapore, I spent some time walking around Little India and I was amazed at how much like India it really was! It was crowded and busy, with throngs of people along the streets, in the markets, and throughout the shopping and food centers. Strong aromas from incense lingered in the air as I passed by shop after shop selling silks and saris. The vendors charmingly called out to passers-by, “We have imported royal silks. Come and have a look!” As I strolled up and down the streets, I kept getting the urge to do the Indian head bob thing; the Indian energy was getting to me and head-bobbing seemed so natural there! On Arab Street (a 10-minute walk away from Little India), there was even a shop called “Aladdin” which was right around the corner from the Sultan Mosque. I felt like I could take a magic carpet ride all around the world while remaining in Singapore the entire time–it seemed that every major culture was represented at least in some small way.

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At the end of Arab Street in Singapore stands the majestic Sultan Mosque.

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During my jaunt through Little India in Sinagpore, I stopped by one of the hawker stands at the Tekka Food Centre so I could try the popular Indian dish called murtabak, a savory pancake filled with chicken, garlic, onion, and egg. I was also scoping out possible suitors for my college roommate who told me she’s looking for an Indian guy! These guys were on board with my match-making as that is a common thing for India!

For my last night, I planned a usual “date night with myself” and decided to catch the light show at Gardens by the Bay, another heralded national attraction that was planted right along the edge of Marina Bay and is maintained by the government. Gardens by the Bay is a huge public area with plants and flowers arranged into an extensive garden layout, and it is also a great public park for jogging, dog-walking, and family outings, similar in that regard to the Botanic Gardens. There are “flower domes” that are designed as greenhouses, mimicking cloud forests with beautiful tropical flowers and waterfalls on display inside. (There is a small entrance fee for the domes.) A “supertree grove” is a recent addition to the gardens; the supertrees are structures that are man-made in the shape of giant trees, but covered with real plants, ivys, orchids, and bromeliads which make them “living” supertrees with a watering system and all.

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Amidst the Gardens by the Bay, there is a great view of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (top left) and the gardens have tropical flowers with robust colors, such as these red and yellow frangipanis (top right), scattered throughout them. The span of Gardens by the Bay can be seen from the roof top of the MBS Hotel (bottom–flower domes on left, supertree grove on right).

Twice a night, after sundown, there is a 15-minute light show in the supertree grove that is orchestrated to a mash-up of well-known symphonic numbers and Disney songs. Each supertree is adorned with strings of lights that change colors, swirl, and dance to the music. Observers sit at the base of these giant trees to view the show overhead. It really was a sort of magical experience. It reminded me of the ambience that can be experienced at Disneyland while watching Fantasmic across the lake in New Orleans Square or the Fireworks show over the Sleeping Beauty Castle with Tinkerbell dancing in the sky in sync with loud fairytale music. Of course the Disney effect was encouraged as Aladdin’s “Magic Carpet Ride” blared on the overhead speakers followed by The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea.” The light show closed out with The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” as its final number. A video clip of that last past of the show can be seen here: http://youtu.be/ATdLCg43Gqs

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The supertree grove comes to life every night creating an Avatar-like grove with bright, colorful lights illuminating these beautiful giants. The two nightly light shows are magical.

That evening, the best seat I found to watch the light show was right next to a gentleman named Andy, from London, who was visiting his son Adam, who lives and works in Singapore. Andy and I got carried away swapping stories until quite a while after the show had ended. I didn’t want to intrude on their father/son time too much, but they invited me to go along with them to continue our conversation over food and drinks at this neat restaurant/bar that Adam knew of with a great view of the MBS Hotel (and the hotel’s laser show) from the terrace where we sat. I was grateful for that time with them because I love good stories and Andy, who has a military background, was full of them! Andy lost his wife just a couple years ago and opened up to me about that experience as well–it was touching to see how much he adored her and still cherishes everything about her. I couldn’t help but appreciate how traveling connects people from all over the world in places and ways no one could ever predict.

Andy’s son, Adam, was the guy I referred to earlier in the chapter who enlightened me on how Singapore is run like a business. Adam has a background in journalism and travel writing, and he has been living in Singapore for six years, working now in consulting for the business world. He was sharp and knew a lot of the ins and outs of the country. There was a lot more that I wanted to pick his brain about, but we didn’t have much time and the attempts to meet up during my following two overnight layovers in Singapore never played out. In any case, he made me well aware of the tactics the country uses to bring attention (and therefore more money) to itself so it can maintain its place as a “top dog” in the world. Both MBS Hotel as well as the “Singapore Skyline” are landmarks that draw people in. (Mostly businesspeople and vacationing tourists, not so many backpackers!!) Hanging out with Andy and Adam was a great way to round off my time in Singapore.

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The Singapore Skyline: prominent business skyscrapers to the left, the Singapore Flyer reflected on the river in the middle, and three glowing supertrees from the Gardens by the Bay on the right.

When my five days were up, I felt like it wasn’t enough. I found myself quite intrigued with Singapore and even considering having a long-term relationship with the place. My curiosity was piqued and I wondered how long this perfect society will continue on its trajectory. Is it possible for other countries to achieve the same kind of equilibrium, and will other countries or extremist groups target Singapore and try to bring it down? I realized the answers to these questions will take time to reveal themselves, of course, so I decided not to wonder too hard… By that time, I was itching to get back to some smaller islands where things were generally simpler and I could actually just walk down the road a few minutes to get to the beach. The next country on my radar was the Philippines, a country made up of 7,000 islands, so I was definitely heading in the right direction!

TRAVEL TIP: Because Singapore is so well-known for its airport and most people just spend one night in the place due to an overnight layover, this tip is all about sleeping in airports. I did, in fact, return to Singapore two more times during my journey only because I had overnight layovers and one night I slept in the airport so I have some pointers for comfort, just in case you ever find yourself on a flight that you bought (because it was significantly cheaper than any others) with an overnight layover somewhere.

First of all, you must pack the following items in your carry-on as you will not likely have access to your checked luggage until your final destination: blanket, travel pillow, 1-2 pairs of socks, a pair of pants, a sweatshirt or jacket, something to cover your eyes (scarf/blindfold/bandana/eye cover), and earplugs. (Keep your toothbrush and other desired toiletries with you as well.)

Hopefully you can find a good chair or soft bench to sleep on, but you may end up on the ground somewhere so be prepared for that (depends on the airport!); if you are sleeping on the ground, try to find something to put between you and the floor (like clothing, a sarong, blanket, etc.) as this will help prevent losing your body heat to the cold ground.

When you are ready to go to sleep, get all bundled up–make sure you are warm!! Set an alarm on your phone, turn the ringer volume up (and put it on vibrate as well if you want), and keep it close. I usually hook an arm or a leg around the straps of whatever belongings I have with me and either tuck them against the closest wall or underneath some part of my body just to make sure no one runs off with them while I’m sleeping. If you have post-it’s or other paper, you can write down the time you need to get up and spread the notes around your sleeping area (in case you miss your alarm–some passer-by will know what time to wake you up).

Now you are ready! The most important things are earplugs and an eye cover if you want uninterrupted sleep. Cover your eyes, plug your ears, curl up, have a nice rest, and don’t miss your next flight!

Happy traveling!

Alexandra

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Karl
    Dec 23, 2015 @ 22:51:27

    Death to drug traffickers and Victoria Secrets?
    My head spun. πŸ˜€

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jan 14, 2016 @ 16:45:25

      Hehe. Right? It was a neat place overall and I know there was so much more left unexplored outside the busy part of the city so that is not represented here, but first impressions were definitely head-spinning!!
      Thank you for reading! I can see the finish line… πŸ™‚

      Reply

  2. Cynthia
    Dec 27, 2015 @ 20:49:10

    A delightful read, as usual, Alex! Thank you for sharing your awesome travels! I must confess, if I ever have the opportunity to travel to Singapore I certainly won’t mind being “spoon-fed” directions. I’m sometimes challenged in that regard – don’t tell anyone! πŸ™‚ Keep safe and God’s continued blessings upon you dear one!

    Cynthia

    Reply

  3. Cynthia Peterson
    Dec 27, 2015 @ 20:52:59

    A delightful read, as usual, Alex! Thank you for sharing your awesome travels! I must confess, if I ever have the opportunity to travel to Singapore I certainly won’t mind being “spoon-fed” directions. I’m sometimes challenged in that regard – don’t tell anyone! πŸ™‚ Keep safe and God’s blessings upon you dear one!

    Cynthia

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jan 14, 2016 @ 16:49:54

      Directionally-challenged can mean more opportunity for adventure! Or you might need a guide to accompany your travels…If you can’ think of anyone, I might have someone in mind. πŸ˜‰
      Thank you for your continued support. The finish line is within reach. I am back in the USA now, but sort of “in hiding” until I get this project done. I’ll talk to you soon, though!

      Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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