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Monday, 13 April 2015

See you in Singapore!

So it’s suddenly March and I’m typing this from my apartment in Singapore. Yep; Singapore.

I was asked to go to Singapore for two months to help out the International Execution Team in Grain & Oilseeds. I said yes, purely for the exposure it would give me and the experience I would get on International; something I had none of. And so; at the beginning of March, just before the long Labour Day weekend where I was meant to go on a BMW Motorbike trip with Kiwi and Jack, I am shipped over to Singapore and what a shock to the system for this chirpy Irish girl that was...

First of all, the humidity. It’s so humid that I have had my hair in a bun for the past 4 weeks. I spent 40 minutes curling my seriously dry hair with a GHD one morning, only to have the humidity make them fall out in under 3 minutes. It’s so humid that I can’t use the shower gel or moisturiser I brought over with me if I’m going to go outside within a couple of hours after using it. I learned this after having to use tissues to wipe the STREAMS of sweat coming off my arms and legs after a 10 minute walk to the MRT (Metro) station one day. It’s steaming humid outside, but Baltic freezing inside; where I sit at my cluttered desk with a scarf and cardigan on, clutching green tea in an effort to not get hypothermia from the Air Con. I don’t know if it’s the humidity or the Air Conditioning that’s worse; as I am drinking about 3 litres of water a day and can see all the others in the Department sick from the constant change in temperature.

Secondly, the work culture here is VERY different. These people live to work. Basic hours are 9am to 7pm with most people staying til 9pm or 10pm at night; every night. It is impossible to do anything after work, since it’s 8pm by the time you get home – IF you even get to leave on time. Not to mention how awkward it is to arrange a Skype or FaceTime call with Melbourne 3 hours ahead of you.

Thirdly, the language barrier. I sit in silence for the majority of my day as everyone around me speaks Chinese, Malay, Singlish or whatever other Asian languages they have. I have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about and have eventually managed to master the art of just simply blocking it out. I am the only “white girl” (they’re description of me, not mine!) on my side of the floor; so there’s no need for them to speak English. The majority of them don't articulate and only say the first half of the word (so "five" is "fi") and many don't use "I", "You", He/She" etc. So "Have you got five dollars?" can sound something like "Ha fi dolla, leh?". The problem is that they mix every language they speak with English, so your ears pick up the words you know and then the brain freezes with the rest. For someone who speaks languages and hates not understanding when others are speaking another language, it’s hard. They appear to be barking and shouting at each other, scolding and reprimanding each other all the time, but then I see they’re laughing the next minute; so clearly it’s just the way the language sounds.However, when they speak English they do the same thing, and for those of us who are probably over-sensitised and “too polite/PC”, they can come across as rude and brash. I had one lady ask me “what age you, leh?” (they say “leh” at the end of EVERY SENTENCE or use “can” as “yes” also) only to follow up with how all Caucasians look the same to her! Ha ha! I guess it’s the same for me for Asians, but I would never say that to anyone at work! They don’t reply to “Good morning” or “See you tomorrow” when I say these things and almost sent me to the psychiatric ward for wishing them a “Happy St. Patrick’s Day!”!!

Fourthly; they love rules. They don’t adhere to the simple unwritten rules of “walk on the left” or “don’t cycle on the footpath”, yet they can put a napkin on a table at a really busy food court in the city and nobody will sit at that seat as it’s “reserved”! Chewing gum is illegal and despite the fact that I have yet to see a policeman, everything is so clean and safe. The MRT Metro is spotless; no food or drink is allowed to be consumed on it. You’re not allowed to hail a taxi in the city from 7am to 10pm to stop traffic jams. Saying that, for a country of 5.4 million people, there are hardly any vehicles on the road! I have yet to see a traffic jam. This is probably because you need a permit to have a car in Singapore and it costs tens of thousands of dollars – BEFORE even buying a car, which needs to be new (within a few years). Everyone takes public transport or taxis, which are cheap, and use a taxi-cab app to order them; which is very efficient. Alcohol is really expensive and they charge Singaporeans $100 to enter a casino, in an effort to stop them gambling. It’s illegal to walk around your own home naked, if you’re caught graffitting then you are sentenced to a mandatory CANING sentence, people of the same sex aren’t allowed to kiss in public, there’s a fine of S$500 if you don’t flush a public toilet after use, it’s illegal to have more than two people “gather together” after 10pm  and you get sentenced to a year’s jail or fine if you attempt to commit suicide!!


Anyway, I am here and working long hours, but making the most of every weekend with Jess (who I worked with in Melbourne but who permanently moved to Singapore – good timing! We’re like a married couple; go to and from work together, have lunch together, spend all weekend with each other, go for meals, share desserts, go sight-seeing etc. A good little tag-team :)

So I bought my Lonely Planet in an effort to make sure I saw as much of Singapore as I could in the 2 months that I was here; especially considering I only have spare time on the weekends.

Weekend 1:

Day 1 at work was long considering I was jet-lagged; by only 3 hours, but having been awake from 4am and staying in work til 7pm, it was a long day. I ended up trying to get a taxi from work and spent 2 hours trying to figure out what the system was for getting them! This is where I learned that it was illegal to hail a taxi between 7am and 10pm at night and that you had to go to a taxi rank. Which would normally be fine, only that people then book the taxis from an app on their phone and for this Irish girl who didn’t have a phone that worked in Singapore; it proved difficult. In the end I pretty much jumped out in front of a taxi on the road and made him take me home. 2 hours of waiting, I was willing to get arrested as it would mean I was in the back of a car anyway!!


Saturday arrived and after the gym, as I was on my own, I put the headphones in to avoid any looming weirdos, put my runners and sun-cream on, took a 1.5ltr bottle of water with me and headed out to explore The Lion City. I spent 8 hours walking around the city and was absolutely knackered by the humidity! Got to look about Marina Bay, see Raffles Hotel (famous for the creation of the “Singapore Sling” cocktail), walk along the Quays, see the famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel – where I promised myself I’d cough up the $500 to stay a night before I leave, go explore the amazing Gardens By The Bay before calling it quits and heading home. I was amongst friends in this Asian country insofar as they love taking photos more than me! EVERYONE has a “Selfie Stick”; even a bunch of old 140-year-old Grannies dressed up like colourful Nuns from Thailand or Malaysia had one!


Sunday I went food shopping and quickly realized that nobody buys food in the supermarket as it’s so expensive. They all just buy their breakfast, lunch and dinner; which can be dangerous considering that I was in Fried-Food-Heaven. I remembered Em telling me she put on 11kgs in the first two months she was in Singapore, and I can see why!! These people were eating chicken curry and egg for breakfast, Indian food for lunch and Hawker food for dinner (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawker_centre)! I probably already weighed about the same as two Singaporeans, but I sure as hell didn’t plan on getting any bigger; especially since I was going straight from here to my sister’s wedding in Thailand!  So the making of my own food lasted a week before I decided to stop and join in with everyone else; however on a boiled eggs for breakfast/salad for lunch kinda way!


Weekend 2

Jess arrived on the Sunday of Weekend 1, so were soon formed a "Work-Wife" relationship; with her living on the floor above mine, going to and from work togather, having lunch together and generally making no plans without consulting each other! Taking the "Lonely Planet" out again, Weekend 2 consisted of heading out in the 98% humidity to go exploring. We headed to Orchard Road and walked along it with all it's shops. MY GOD can Asians shop! And none of this "Penneys" malarkey either; Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs etc. Unbelievable! So we walked up Orchard Road and to Dempsey Hill, stopping for lunch (of course!) in PS Cafe along the way. After sharing what we called "The Death Cake" for dessert, we could barely make it up the hill!! 

After a bit of huffing and puffing we made it to The Botanic Gardens and spent the next couple of hours walking around it and taking in the views. I have to say, despite the fact that I thought my feet were going to fall off from so much trekking and that I was sure I was leaving a trail of sweat behind wherever I walked; it was well worth it! Loads to see and all very peaceful. We stayed here until it was getting dark and the storms were setting in. Heading home, the thoughts of soaking in the pool were the only things keeping us going. I'm sure the other people in the apartments thought we were insane; two "white girls" chatting in the swimming pool in the middle of an electrical storm!! I conked out on the ROCK that is my bed - a hard, small area with a light sheet on it as a cover. I wake every morning with my feet sticking out over the end of the bed and my back broken from the inflexibility of the tombstone that I've been lying on!


 
Next morning we head off to Little India, where we only happen to notice the "avoid Little India on a Sunday because of the crowds" notice in The Lonely Planet when we're actually there. Failing to let this stop us, we walk around the streets and take in all the Temples and Buddhas they have everywhere. We stopped off for lunch on Haji Lane and continued the trek around Little India and Kampong Glam areas. I had started to get used to being a bit different in the last 10 days of being in Singapore, but I most definitely noticed that other people were noticing it when I was in Little India. The streets got more and more busy as the day went on. We managed to catch the mosque at prayer time and see the number of men running into it to pray was impressive. Little India's streets were colourful and busy. There were men everywhere, just hanging around; sitting on steps, standing on the pavement in groups; it seemed like 99% of the male population of India itself was there that day, and not afraid to stare! At one point we were walking through a crowded square that almost fell into complete silence with our passing by, when I said out of the corner of my mouth "Feeling awkward much, Jess?!" She just laughed and said "I'm just happy you're here, cos you're something different - they're not even looking at me blondie!"

 After seeing all there was to see in Little India, we decided to head to look for some graffiti artist's work to take some photos and then for more walking to get an ice-cream. The city was stinking hot with the humidity in the "we're standing on the sun" scale, but the ice-cream was amazing. I got some home-made Salted Caramel Cheesecake and Berry chocolate at Tom's Palette and was in Heaven. I literally could have stayed there for the rest of the day eating! We headed off and I said I wanted to get a drink in Maccas to cool off as we made the trip home. It was only when I was handed the ASTRONOMICALLY HUGE Diet Coke did Jess try to tell me (through the laughter) that the sizing is like in America. I almost needn't have bothered with the gym workout that morning after lugging the keg-sized drink around the city. In the end I threw it away as it was making me sweat just carrying it around! 


Weekend 3

This week we had Paddy's Day. March 17th and I'm in Singapore, celebrating the feast of St. Patrick with an Aussie guy, an Aussie/Italian girl, a Chinese girl and a Korean/Malay-Chinese guy! What a random group, but we had a laugh. Was probably the first St. Patrick's Day where I wasn't drinking - since I'm now 4 months into my letting my mind and liver breathe a little :) We went to Molly Malone's where I could hear a few Irish about, but not that many; even though apparently the largest Irish community in Asia is in Singapore?!

This weekend we started off Friday night with a trip to the local Hawker Market and to the Street Satay, where they shut-down the street and cook Satay skewers on carts for everyone. Great buzz in the middle of the CBD to have little food stalls cooking in a Heritage Hawker Centre and needless to say we had to order a lot of food :) 
Next morning we went to look at an apartment for Jess as she has a couple of weeks before she has to move out and find her own place. From here we went to Emerald Hill to look at the beautiful houses on this expensive street. A bit out of Jess's league, but nice to look at all the same :) A spot of shopping (where I nearly needed to be reigned in!) meant that I was carrying the bags for the rest of the day...rookie error. From here we went to Holland Village where I felt right at home amongst all the ex-Pats! 
We took a Lonely Planet recommended stop at an Italian restaurant called Da Paolo Pizza Bar, which was lovely, before hitting Chinatown. The smell of Durian around the place is disgusting. I tried it the other day in work, in a cracker/biscuit-type thing that one of the guys in work had. It was fine, but keep repeating on me all day. The smell on the streets stuck to my throat in the way that reminded me of the horrible taste - it is something that has to be experienced to be understood. I have no doubt in my mind as to why the fruit is banned from all public places and most workplaces and common areas. Whoever was the first person to discover it and get past the smell to even THINK about tasting the fruit clearly needs their head examined. 

We walked about Chinatown in the busy tacky little shops selling all the same things, and then onto the stalls selling the likes of dried sea-horse, dried squid and dried lizard. Stomachs of steel the Chinese must have - they'd win ever episode of "Fear Factor" or "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" hands down. Nothing is off limits to eat.
We went into a temple with hundreds and hundreds of little Buddhas. I had to don a dashing sarong and scarf to get past the security man in my shorts and top, but it was worth it. VERY impressive. Plus, Jess told me that they purposely build a high step on the way into the temple, so that whenever anyone comes in they generally look down to step over the step and in the process are "bowing" to the temple before entering. Crafty Chinese, eh?! 

We then traipse down to "The Gardens By The Bay" Night Light Show that is for free for everyone twice a night. We take a seat on the grass and watch the 15 min spectacular display of lights to music; well worth the trek down and the atmosphere was great. We finally head to "Lucha Loco" for some Mexican Food (as you do when you're in Chinatown?!); again recommended by The Lonely Planet Bible that we go nowhere without. Well worth it, even if we burnt the mouths off ourselves with the first bite of "seasoning" (pure chilli) on the corn-on-the-cob starters. The waitress had a full time job just refilling my glass with water and Jess thought she was going blind after she rubbed her chilli-seasoned finger into her eye to wipe away the tears. This then lead to my almost choking on the water as I tried not to spit it out over the hot Italian couple who had just sat down beside us. Good times. Classy customers :)
Next day we head to get a massage. Now, I haven't had that many massages in my life, but I don't remember ever being in pain during them. This "massage" was agony, with the masseuse (Xiao Ling) kneading out all my knots with her elbows, karate-chopping my back and neck like she was Bruce Lee and pressing pressure points to the point where I thought I was going to shout. Towards the end of the hour-of-hell, Xiao Ling decided to diagnose me with some kind of terminal illness. She's kneading at my stomach when she stops suddenly. She has a poke around, and then starts looking at my pupils, the whites of my eyes, asks me to stick out my tongue and then starts using my own hand to "show" me what she's "found" in my stomach. Here's me thinking my six days a week at the gym had finally amounted to an "ab"!! She's then talking in Malaysian to her mate who is massaging Jess beside me (told you we were pretty much married), and both of the try to tell me what's wrong with me with less than zero English. So, not only was I beaten up and bruised, I was now leaving the place with only 2 weeks to live or something. However, before sending me on my way to plan my funeral, Xiao Ling gets Jess to take about 15 photos of me and her together!! She's full-on holding hands with me and I'm left there wondering what the hell is going on. The joys of being a blonde, blue-eyed, freckly white girl in a Happy-Snappy Asian country! 
Wondering whether I need to go to see a doctor or just start making my Will, we head off to Sentosa Island to spend the day walking around there and relaxing. We make one length of the island and go to the Southern-most point of Continental Asia, before we get notification of a massive storm coming our way, so we catch the shuttle-train to the other side and take shelter in a outside bar packed full of ex-Pats and Singaporeans. It feels like we're in the middle of Armageddon when the storm hits - not something that's fun for someone who is afraid of thunder. As Jess gets a drink at the bar, this older American man starts trying to strike up a conversation with me. He is nice, but he's drunk and within 5 minutes has told me about how rich he apparently is; so I'm not really engaging much into the attempted conversation. He's sitting with two Aussies and we get talking to all three when Jess comes back. When he leaves for the bathroom one of the Aussies tell us who he is.We were drinking with Eric Wilkinson; who is Kendra from the Playboy Mansion's Dad. So no, he wouldn't be short of a few bob or two. He stayed about another couple of hours and then stumbled off home when the storm stopped. We stayed a couple more chatting to the two Aussies and laughing at the drunk English drinking Moet like it was going out of fashion, or one guy who was grabbing a girl's ass at the bar as another guy had his arm around her stroking her ass - and she didn't seem to mind (or notice?!) one bit!. We did a bit of people-watching and commenting before heading off home ourselves. after another weekend of non-stop going.

Weekend 4:

This time we head out to an Indian with Chris (Irish/Aussie who used to work with us in Melbourne), his Irish housemate Rosco and his girlfriend Alexis. We have to order everything we want on an iPad and Chris starts vocalising his displeasure about having to deal with a machine rather than a person. He gets more vocal when Jess doesn't order Naan Bread (even though she thinks she does), saying that it's because we're dealing with a machine and telling them not to order it now, we're not paying for it blah blah blah. When the 6ft 7in Chris goes outside for a smoke, we sneakily order the Naan, which comes out when he comes back and nearly causes him to have a heart-attack; thinking the waiters weren't listening to his rant fifteen minutes prior! He then only has a little piece of the Naan, out of principle...more for Jess and I, so we're happy! :) Back to his for drinks and then home about 3am.


Next day we head to Orchard Road and hit the shops. Jess picks a restaurant to eat in, which turns out to be quite posh; so I have to put a top on over my sports top that I'm wearing to try and appear a little less homeless. We are the only non-Asians in the place and each time the waiter comes round, I have to look at Jess to let her answer him as I have no idea what he's saying. We order burger and chips and have a laugh at the mess Jess makes of the place, with burger juice dripping down her entire arm and onto the table via her elbow! We're sure they can't wait to get us out of the place!
We check out an apartment for Jess which she really likes, and I tell her she's going to get it cos it's on the 23rd floor (my obsession with the number 23 coming into play). An hour after we view the place the girl texts Jess to ask when can she move in! Delighted for her - great housemates, nice area; perfect!

Next day it's raining all day, so we chill in the apartments til about 5pm and then head out for something to eat (of COURSE I hear you say), again consulting The Lonely Planet. We head to Smokey's where we have to abide with a Minute's Silence for Singapore's Founding Father Lee Kuan Lew (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Kuan_Yew; who died earlier in the week. Now, I have to admit I had never heard of the guy before coming to Singapore, but the people here LOVE him. If you look at the link above, even Wikipedia has had to put a notice on the link saying to stop putting anything other than facts on it, as his millions of fans keep writing things about how great he is on it, just on their own opinions! He is the reason Singapore is the way it is, and love or hate his rules and dictatorship ideas, he made Singapore from a third-world country to a first-world country in one generation. In work, people were crying watching the TV at his funeral and many queued for 8 or more hours just to be able to bow at a photo of him in front of his coffin. This was Diana-type stuff. He is said to have worked off the idea of "I know what's best for you, not you". He restricted their principle rights and even monitored how many people of which race/denomination etc can live in each area to avoid clusters of nationals who might not integrate properly; or to avoid possible problem areas. 
He said stuff like this "We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.” Mental note - don't do anything bad in Singapore. 
I found it hard to bite my tongue when a colleague spoke about how a teenager was arrested for posted something bad about him on YouTube because "in our country you can't do that - he needed to pay the price". She was telling me that they have "Freedom of Speech" if it's about good things, and asking if it was the same in "my country". I tip-toed around shouting "WHAT THE HELL?!!? Arrested for putting something on YOUTUBE?!?!?! Half of the world would be in prison if that was the case!". I didn't think that would go down too well in the sea of pro-Lee Kuan Yew peeps sitting around me. Instead I just smiled and said "eh...no; Freedom of Speech is Freedom of Speech in our country". It's great that they have such a safe and well-oiled country running like clockwork by people who decide what's best for you, but at what price? And it's sad that they don't even know it. God, I shudder to think of what state Ireland would be in if we let the idiots that "run" our country have any more power than they already have?! 

So it's fair to say I won't be moving to Singapore permanently any time soon; nice place, but a little too restricted for my liking. I'm struggling with the place being so Westernised, yet not quite Westernised; if you know what I mean? And anyway; how would anyone ever be able to shut me up?! I'll be lucky if I'm not writing the next update from inside prison walls :)


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