It feels like 2013 is still on the plate, congealing slightly but not yet done, there’s maybe cause to hunt the last piece of bread to chase the juicy bits around the china. And yet here’s 2014, all steamy and easy to eat.
Well … it was steamy for a while there. It’s better now. But I do feel like the new year sneaked (snuck?) up on me when I wasn’t paying attention and now it’s two months gone and I definitely haven’t finished processing last year yet.
Last year I wasn’t supposed to do much or go anywhere so as to save up leave for an Expedition this year. That didn’t quite work out (though the Expedition is still happening … soon): I went to New Zealand at short notice; I also went to Singapore, with a little more planning.
My habitual travelling companions are quite fond of Singapore; any trip to Europe will involve a stop on the way there or back (or both). I visited once in the 70s with my family, and did a brief stopover myself in 2001 … and discovered, when I went back to the airport, that I was travelling on a class of ticket which supposedly didn’t allow that. I think it was only by pointing out that the whole thing – including stopover – had been booked by the national carrier than I avoided the usual Singaporean consequence of transgression …
I exaggerate. Probably.
Anyway, I had this idea – partly as a result of chums’ petitioning – of taking a quick trip to Singapore: just a short break to take advantage of the abundance of long weekends in the first half of the year. And there were cheap fares available – always an encouragement. Once I set the plans in motion the travelling companions decided they had to come along to show me around.
Singapore is … steamy. Check the operating range for your electronic equipment steamy. Forget the first half-dozen or so photos you take when you get off the plane steamy.
And yet the first stop – compulsory, I was told – was on the way into town from the airport. For chilli crab, in honour of someone’s birthday*.
This is very messy.
Singapore is steamy all the time. First and obvious observation. Singapore is open all the time. Second observation. There is, I’m sure, a brief window in the unfriendly bit of the morning, for people to come out and clean the streets, the shops, the malls … but it would be a very brief window. Everything else carries on. Construction goes on all night, courtesy of an abundance of floodlights. And there is a lot of construction. It is, like the cleaning, almost completely dependent on visiting workers. Non-residents. Gastarbeiters. Who May or may not be there legitimately.
On the way into the city I noticed other vehicles – trucks small and big, utes (pick-ups), open-back vans – with loose equipment in the back and a small round decal on the back: a number, indicating, as I figured out later, the number of people who could be legally stuffed into the back. And driven to and from those construction sites: in theory to and from Jahore across the border on the mainland: more likely to and from old buildings in Little India, where it’s a good bet they hot-bed ten or so to a room.
Third observation: Singapore, which is internationally notorious for its enthusiastic regulation of everything – food stalls, sex, spitting in the street – is quite happy for the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Filipinos who sustain the all-night construction to travel around, unsecured, in the open back of trucks and vans. With loose equipment.
But still: we made out way into town, to one of the many nice and comfortable hotels. On Orchard Road, of course. Handy for … everything.
Next observation: in spite of limited space, Singapore seems to have a lot of roads. They’re very good roads. They’re also full. Despite quite brutal taxes on cars and their licenses and on actually using the roads – and very expensive parking – and a good and cheap and clean public transport system – there are a lot of cars on the road. All the time. Cars are a more obvious prestige item in Singapore than anywhere else I’ve been – even if the car is just a boxy Japanese people-mover; it’s still a daily statement of “I can afford this.”
For a lot of people that statement isn’t enough; it has to be “I can afford this!” Every hotel had its complement of high-end cars: limited edition Mercs, Maseratis, various species of overpowered penis. Not rentals, and the more swish the hotel the more space there was for these things; the more arcane and asinine and expensive the cars got. Not just conspicuous consumption – almost passé in Singapore – but ostentatious consumption. I would lay money that if one overpaid expat with a Lamborghini Tossalotta encountered another of the same on the streets of Singapore, he’d immediately sell the damn thing to get something even more expensive and exclusive. Something about Singapore – many things about Singapore – seem, alas, to attract or even encourage this kind of thinking.
It’s perhaps obvious by now that, unfortunately, Singapore rubbed me up the wrong way almost from the time we left the airport.
Even so, one should throw oneself in to these things. And I should have mentioned that this was a short trip, something only possible with a relatively small locus to explore and the aforementioned discounted airfares. To my thinking, a short trip means embracing the unusual, and this meant the first Official destination – after some shopping – was the very out-of-character-for-me Universal Studios Singapore.
In that long-ago 70s visit with my family we spent a day on Sentosa Island. I remember a ride over on the cable car – still there – and a very undeveloped, almost jungly place. You got around in superannuated London buses with all the windows removed, and one of the highlights was a waxwork representation of the surrender to Japanese forces in 1942. It’s not like that now: the whole island has been remodelled, extended with reclaimed land and all but taken over with golf courses and premium real estate developments and resorts – including Universal Studios.
I haven’t been to the one in LA (or elsewhere) but I imagine they’re all similar, with a serious of backlot-style ‘worlds’ – an archetype of New York, a faux Egyptian setting, generic science fiction – and some thoroughly trademarked property: in this case a kind of Jurassic Park, a mocked-up freighter that turned out to be associated with the movie Madagascar (which I haven’t seen) and a disturbingly realistic representation of Far Far Away from the Shrek series.
It was, alas, raining – Singapore, tropics – equator, actually – but that didn’t stop it being a lot of fun. In fact the rain was a blessing: the queues were few and short. A case in point: the science fiction realm boasts a Transformers ride which includes a long preamble, a kind of orientation for new troopers in some special military unit. On a busy day – one where the signs telling you how long you have to wait could be cause for cursing – the recorded briefings and video displays in the labyrinthine queuing area might have been a useful distraction for the kiddies …
We raced through, got to the staging area, collected goggles – it’s 3D – and … whoosh …
You’re piled eight at a time into a thing that looks like an open-topped urban assault vehicle and then driven down a track surrounded by enormous 3D screens, as a voice-over tells you you’re on an emergency insertion into a combat situation. Then you get attacked by Decepticons.
The next twenty minutes involves you rocketing back and forth, spinning around, getting picked up and shaken by a giant angry Megatron, having fake shrapnel and real water tossed at you and at one stage there’s this extremely realistic sequence where you’re thrown through a building and then seem to fall 40 storeys to the ground, through the road, into the subway tunnels …
I realised only later – after my knees started working again, and my pulse slowed down – that the car would have travelled at most about 100 metres, back and forth on the same rail as the images on the screens changed around you. There was a highly energetic turntable in there somewhere, too. The rest of it was visual and auditory tricks that probably had some really cool brain science behind them. Immense fun.
The rest of the park seemed a bit tame after that … but I would have liked to throw myself into it more. The Jurassic Park flume ride was fun – wet – and the various other attractions were well done. I would have liked to try one of those big roller coasters …
Alas. The trip coincided with someone’s birthday, as I said, and it was her decision that we should go somewhere else for lunch. For her favourite Singapore lunch. So Universal Studios didn’t get as thoroughly explored as I might have liked. But I can recommend it.
The rest of the day involved not-shopping and afternoon tea in a place with a multi-page tea menu (and an accompanying large glossy book to explain what it is you’re drinking).
Fair warning: they don’t do coffee. That was a shock.
And then …
* not mine. If I was going to choose a special birthday meal, it wouldn’t be chilli crab. But it might be somewhere … unusual.