Chapter 24: Living in a material world...

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
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24
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Trip End Nov 2004


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Where I stayed
New 7th Storey Hotel

Flag of Singapore  ,
Thursday, February 5, 2004

"I'm flying off to Singapore
Where women dance and tigers roar
I'm lying on a distant shore
Living life as fast as I can
A nod, a wink, another drink
I am the domino man!"
- Beautiful South

Saturday night I realized that I'd accidentally kept my key from Sirwa Homestay on Gili Trawangan, so I did the responsible thing on Sunday morning and hunted down a place where I could send it back. There was actually a branch of the post office that was open near Masa Inn, and I felt like a better person after I paid my 9000Rp and got rid of the thing. After that little errand I overpaid for a ride to the airport; it was hot and I didn't have the energy to haggle. The airport was dull. I gave myself two hours, which was way too long since the place was empty. Every duty-free souvenir hawker saw me as a walking opportunity, so I spent the whole time pacing around saying "no, thanks." Next time I go to Indonesia I'll bring a T-shirt with the word "NO" printed in big letters across the front so I can just point. I used my last 15,000Rp online and reserved a dorm bed at the well-respected New 7th Storey Hotel in the center of Singapore.

It's amazing how fast that big stack of airplane tickets that I left home with shrunk down. I used my next-to-last [pre-purchased] one flying from Bali to Singapore. I can't stay awake on airplanes no matter how hard I try, so I don't remember much about the flight, except that the food choices were beef courgette (?) or beef [something I can't pronounce and couldn't begin to spell]. I had the latter and didn't notice much that was beefy about it (it looked like a corn fritter), so I ate it without complaint.

Changi Airport in Singapore was a different world from the Bali terminal. I expected it to be modern and techy... but I didn't expect to find 100% English signage, free internet, showers, and an entire mall! I figured I'd shop later, so I grabbed my bags, breezed through the almost non-existent customs area, and jumped on the MRT subway. The hotel was close to the Bugis station, which was convenient, and the subway was simple to negotiate. I checked in at 6pm, dumped my stuff in the well-appointed dorm room (TV!), and walked across the street to the Parco Bugis Junction Mall.

Singapore is just north of the equator, and it's a hot & humid consumer heaven (or hell, depending on your viewpoint). It's also one of the greenest and cleanest cities I've ever seen, thanks to beautiful gardens, strict litter laws, and prohibition on things like selling gum. Most everything is in English, although the population is over 75% Chinese. Downtown is literally wall-to-wall shopping malls, and prices vary wildly so it pays to look around and then bargain hard. I'd decided already that I was going to buy a portable CD player here - the i-Pod is great but I need new music - so I started comparison shopping immediately. That led to browsing the music & dvd shops, looking for contact lenses, and stopping in virtually every retailer that was still open. The hours here are different from home: stores open around 10 or 11 and stay open until 8-10 at night. That suits me fine!

In the end the only thing I bought that night was the newly-released (just that day!) "Lonely Planet: Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei" guide. I've been using mostly LP guides so far on this trip, and for all future releases starting in 2004 they've completely overhauled their presentation. So far I'm impressed; the maps are much better, the organization makes more sense, and everything is cross-referenced. I went to a design-your-own pasta place for dinner and started planning out my next few days.

First thing Monday I walked up the street to Sim Lim Square, which is an enormous 6-storey complex filled with specialist electronics shops selling everything from wires to video cameras to computers. Three hours later I left with a headache and too many digits (prices and model numbers) floating in my head. Next up I headed for Orchard Street, which is the heart of commercial Singapore. It's non-stop shopping of every kind for a few miles, and it's jammed with people. I spent hours in HMV & Borders (who knows when I'll see stores like those again!) catching up on pop culture via magazines and music listening stations. Over the course of the afternoon I roamed through Plaza Singapura, Centrepoint, Ngee Ann City, Lucky Plaza, Wheelock Place, the Heeren, Far East Plaza, and too many more to remember. I forgot how much of a pop culture junkie I am by nature until I found myself surrounded by it! By 7pm my feet were killing me, so I walked home and re-discovered the joys of the McDonald's McFlurry along the way. Back in the dorm I met a couple of guys from Spain and Ausralia. Singapore is a fascinating place to meet other travellers because it's a major transport hub between Europe, Asia, and Australia/NZ.

Tuesday I decided to take a day off from shopping to mull over my potential purchases. I walked up to the Little India neighborhood to have some authentic Indian curry for lunch. It was very different from the stuff I've had at home, and I think in typical fashion I like the US bastardization of Indian food better. I browsed the bustling local Mustafa market (more for the cultural experience than to buy anything), and then took the subway downtown to the misleadingly-named Raffles Place station. I assumed that the famous Raffles Hotel would be nearby, but I was wrong, so I walked for another hour across the Esplanade Bridge and through some parks until I found the hotel. The Raffles Hotel is a relic from early 1800's Singapore, and it's the epitome of colonial luxury in the city. Pretty much every tourist stops by to have a Singapore Sling; I relaxed in the hotel's atmospheric Long Bar, pretended I was a colonial spice trader, and tossed one back.

Wednesday I finally made some decisions about what to buy, and I subsequently spent a horrific amount of money in one day. My first stop was Sim Lim Square, where I had to haggle at three shops until I found a good price (meaning "not much more than I'd pay on Amazon.com") for a beautiful little portable Panasonic region-free DVD player with a 5" screen. I am now officially the least backpacker-ish backpacker EVER.

Once I had the means to listen to new tunes, I went back to HMV & Borders and loaded up on CDs from Mew, the Stills, Belle & Sebastian, Sophie Ellis Bextor, the Rapture, Longview, and South. I'd never heard four of the acts before, which made it even more exciting. Prices were US$10-15, which was better than I'd expected. I held off on buying any big name acts, because I'll be able to find those (along with bootleg DVDs) for super-cheap elsewhere in Asia.

After the CD spree, I bought the Region 1 extended version of "Two Towers" so I could test the "region-free" DVD functionality before skipping town. Finally, I bought some accessories: a case, and an extra long-life (5 hours, ha!) battery which I had to seriously bargain for. I'm getting good at that; a few guys tried to sell the battery to me for S$330 (US$180!);, and I managed to get one of them down to S$160, which is about what I'd pay at home. I was exhausted after all that, so I limped back home and played with my new toy (it works) while chatting with my new roommates, Barry and Jen. Jen's heading up north next, too, so hopefully we'll bump in to each other.

Today I walked to the bus station and bought a ticket for tomorrow morning to Mersing, on the east coast of Malaysia. From there I'll be able to take a boat to Pulau Tioman, which is supposedly one of the most beautiful islands in the world (it was the setting for Bali Hai in "South Pacific," I think). Then I walked back through Little India and saw part of the Thaipusam festival, which was really exciting. It's a Hindu celebration in honor of Lord Subramaniam, and devotees parade down the street wearing big, elaborately decorated cages that are attached to their bodies by dozens of hooks through their skin. They also pierce their tongues and cheeks with metal spikes, but they're in some kind of trance so they supposedly don't feel the piercings. I'm not sure I believe that, because the marchers didn't look very comfortable, and those hooks looked painful!

It's hot as blazes here, so I'm dreading leaving the air-conned sanctuary of the mega-gaming-internet complex. These places are very popular with young guys playing first-person-shooters on LAN connections, and they're huge (100s of computers), cheap, and loud. Anyway, I hope you're keeping warm in February, wherever you are!

- Tim
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