Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Watch out for the Durian

Okay, so we know that Singapore is one of the great economic success stories of South East Asia, the city state that's made it big, and we want to visit to see our friends - Jake, another SOAS escapee, and Kenny who we met with Keng-Rui in a pokey little restaurant at Petra in Jordan more than a year ago. But the accomodation is prohibitively expensive and we think it'll be a flying visit. There are some options - maybe we could just blow a bubble-gum bubble at a policeman, toss the wrapper on the street and then jay-walk with the hope of a cheap night in clink and a warning from the judge in the morning? What are we thinking - we could Couch Surf. But we really only want to meet up with Jake and Kenny and that's not the Couch Surfer's etiquette. Thankfully Kenny writes to say we could squeeze into his family's flat - it's a generous offer and we can't refuse.
So in a whirlwind visit we meet up with Jake and his mate Jim and with Kenny and Esther for a quality curry (thank you Jake!) in Little India. It's strange to be meeting familiar faces again and out socialising but hugely enjoyable. We've done more of this in the past month than we have in a year. Luckily Kenny and Esther are just finishing their teacher training before starting the real thing in June, so they are able to show us some of Singapore's highlights. We wander through the botanical gardens which are extensive and impressive before heading to the bird park where there's a great collection of birds. The following day we get down to the zoo, something we might normally avoid, but Singapore Zoo has a good reputation, and the animals and enclosures are well-kept and fairly spacious. Again, we are impressed, although the tropical climate might be a little tough on the polar bears and penguins. They do get air-conditioned quarters though.

chopstick lesson
I think when we last saw Kenny we had been quibbling over the price of a cup of tea with a cafe owner at Petra, so we know he understands our budget travel mode. Throughout our stay he looked after us really well - tipping us off to quality cheap eats - and taking us out for a classic Singaporean meal of chilli crab and finishing off at a....er...oh 'eck, is that what we think it is? It is. It's a durian stall. In fact it's a durian bar. Now, anyone whose travelled in these parts will probably have come across this fruity delicacy and will know that this large spiky and pungent fruit is banned from most public transport systems and most hotels, simply because it smells rather strongly. In fact it stinks. But break open the outer shell and inside are pods of yellow custardy flesh that are savoured by most locals. We choose one and the vendor slices it open at the table and we tuck in. Kenny eats with vigour, but Esther is a little slower, having overdosed on durian when she was younger. Gayle seems happy enough but I'm really struggling with the strange flavour. We finish it off and we live to tell the tale.Kenny's family live in one of the four large housing estates built across Singapore, dense appartment blocks that are brightly painted and look well maintained. We are very grateful to his family for putting up with us, as their flat has only two bedrooms, a small bathroom and a kitchen/living room. Kenny lives here with his sister and parents and a necessarily small dog. Demand for housing is unsurprisingly high in this small island state and space is at a premium. Despite this, the urban environment seems to be managed very effectively. The estate is green, clean, pedestrian-friendly and well-lit at night. At street level there are cafes and food courts, shops and a market full of fresh produce. We are treated to some weird and wonderful foods which Kenny finds for us with an evangelical zeal. The majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese and the food reflects this. Instead of hawker stalls on the street, most cooked food is served at food courts - with a seating area surrounded by a variety of counters, many serving their speciality dish. It's a convenient way to eat cheaply and its a sociable scene, as everyone gathers to chow down or shlurp an iced drink. When we compare this with the grim housing blocks that used to fill Manchester city centre and still survive around Britain, we are also reminded of the Soviet-era housing in some Central Asian towns we have passed through. Here in Singapore it seems they've done it much better. The small police post next to Kenny's block was closed a while ago through lack of need.
Downtown we amble along by the old quayside at the heart of the banking district, overshadowed by buildings that deserve to be called skyscrapers. We cut across past some of the city's old administrative buildings, one now a museum of "asian civilisation" with a great collection from the pacific to west asia, and mooch on past the durian-like theatre complex. This is a recent addition and it looks like Singapore is pushing the development of an arts scene. We return here on a weekend evening with Kenny and Esther and it's teeming with mainly young people. An Indonesian rock band is playing on a small stage. A large screen is showing a Manchester United match (what is it with Manchester United?) On another night we wander around the old Chinatown area, which still has streets of old shophouses and a night market. It adds a little flavour to a very modern city.
But we can't impose on Kenny and his family forever, and we finally shuffle off back to Malaysia to find a beach and a little peace and quiet.

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