Singapore Girl gave us grown-up privileges

14 06 2010

Taking off at night in the rain, the view out the window looks like a post modernist painting. Individual objects blur and lose their proportions. Sullen glows in the distance could be cities, or fires, or cities on fire.

Singapore Airlines has decided that we are all big enough to play with real metal adult cutlery without stabbing anyone with the fork. Bless. Not only have anti-terrorism measures made the traveler’s life supremely inconvenient, they have also removed our grown-up privileges. I just wish that, instead of the metal detector, airports could install some kind of telepathic innocence reader so that they could see my inner thoughts on the subject, which would be: Are you NUTS?!? I’m not going to (a) hold up the plane with my nail scissors; (b) ignite something with my laptop or (c) try to incinerate the craft with my 200mL bottle of shampoo.

Of course, a telepathic innocence indicator could run into all sorts of problems. I can imagine it bringing up private and embarrassing personal stuff, for one thing. And anyone willing to blow up a plane probably has a special sort of blind belief in their own innocence (and possibly the imminent availability of 72 attractive virgins) that would send the green lights flashing too.


My four edicts for rewarding travel

28 05 2010

1. Go slow.

In fact, if you’re up for the full travel experience, find a way to live somewhere rather than just stay in traveller’s accommodation. This could be flatting, couchsurfing, staying with a local family, or volunteer-for-bed work like WWOOFing. Almost without exception, the most remarkable experiences I have had involved one of the above.

Even if “going native” isn’t your style and you’d prefer a more straightforward travel experience, going slow is important. Every move requires time to organise, as well as a certain amount of stress. The longer you stay in one place, the higher the proportion of experience time to logistics time.

2. Find people living locally.

This is the other benefit that comes from living somewhere other than tourist accommodation. The locals can tell you what’s really going on – from politics to where the good gigs are in town. Milk connections with friends, or even friends of friends.

3. Learn the language.

If you are in a country for a while, see if there is a local language school that you can attend for a week or two when you set out. This is another way to find people living locally – not just through developing language ability, but through meeting other foreigners who are sticking around for a while.

4. Pack light.

If you are backpacking, you need to carry everything you’ve got. And the more you’ve got, the harder it is to move around. Look at the stuff you’re thinking of carrying and eliminate everything that you don’t consider absolutely essential.

Here is my list of absolutely essential things for hot-country travel:

  • Indian-style clothes. Comfy, loose and cotton, covering as much skin as possible – dress to protect from sun, insects and local conservative clothing codes.
  • A belt pouch to hold your essentials under your clothes. However, if you’re travelling through super-dodgy zones (e.g. places in Peru, Columbia, India), there are thieves who happily circumvent this security system. For these places, I’ve heard the following works well : sew a pocket in the inside of your trousers, well below belt level, and put your stuff in there.
  • A shoulder bag that zips up securely, and a wallet that goes inside it. Money for day-to-day stuff goes in here. Reaching into that hidden belt-pouch under your pants isn’t a good look when you’re buying coffee. And your day-to-day money shouldn’t be in the same place that your passport, credit card, and emergency wad of cash are. Advantages of a shoulder bag: You don’t take it off, the way you do with a daypack. You can hold it across the front of your body in high-security situations like public transport or crowded places. It makes you feel less like a tourist gimp.
  • An emergency wad of cash, and photocopies of your essential documents, somewhere that isn’t your belt-pouch or your shoulder bag. Scanning all your essential documents before you leave and emailing them to yourself and your emergency contact is a good idea as well.
  • Broad-spectrum antimicrobial cream and strapping tape.
  • If you’re going anywhere with malaria – prescribed doxycycline tablets (these also double as antibiotics for anything bacterial). And a mosquito net that you can hang from the ceiling. Actually, bring the net if you’re going anywhere tropical that’s out in the wops.
  • A notebook. I found this was the fastest way to learn a language – write down any new word or phrase as you learn it. In the end, it becomes better than a dictionary because it has the language you’re using from day to day.
  • Little, lightweight gifties for people you meet. It feels very good to be able to give something back when you have received kindness. I took watercolour card and paints, and handed out pictures; these are also good because they prevent any weirdness that comes from gifts of money or other things with a price tag.
  • A down jacket. Seriously. It becomes a pillow, a blanket for transport with brutal aircon, and emergency warmth if you end up somewhere cold.
  • Tampons. They aren’t always available when you need them.
  • An outfit that still makes you feel pretty, even if you haven’t bathed or slept for more than 48 hours.

Living in a bubble

23 05 2010

Beautiful people in a sparkling cool bubble, floating above the street – the image on a highway billboard says it all. Jakarta likes to see the world from an air-conditioned glass cocoon. When the traffic hits in the evening, a car can take an hour to cover 2km. Walking would be faster. But people like their bubbles.

I’m not used to this version of Indo, which I saw in my previous life as a backpacker. This is a country where a supermarket is often a luxury concept. Ditto fridges. You get your food from the local market and cook it up, or eat something hot from a street stall. A motorbike is a heavy vehicle. So is a bicycle, sometimes.

Our big adventure today is to escape the glass bubble by walking home from the mall, the biggest air conditioned oasis of them all. The tampons were horrendously hard to find at the supermarket – a luxury item even for the luxury concept – and are shrinkwrapped like electronic equipment. I also have two new books on southeast Asian politics, also shrinkwrapped. The Thai one, only a few months old, is a scathing commentary against the current regime. The author must nearly be wetting himself at his highly auspicious timing of publication, with the world media spotlight on redshirts and teargas in the capital. A local shuttlevan speeds past, people on the roof, people hanging off the sides, everyone in fluoro orange shirts waving the Indonesian flag and shouting slogans. Some sort of rally just like in Thailand… forget courage in the face of political oppression, I’m more impressed by their courage in the face of near death from falling off. Further down the road, we catch up with them standing outside the stadium, still shouting slogans that turn out to be directed at their soccer team. So much for Indo as a hotbed of political turmoil. It seems that people will only take to the streets for sport.

21 04 2010

Singapore is confusing. On the one hand, it’s jammed full of glittering high-rise real estate, the likes of which I have never seen. Coffee’s expensive. And my gym… if I’d signed up to it for weight loss, it might have been cheaper to amputate a limb.

On the other hand, there are things that I always thought were marks of a “economically challenged” country. People try to sell you stuff on the street. A lot of prices are negotiable. There are mysterious old men with bamboo brooms and a mission to clean the streets of the world. A lot of heavy lifting seems to be done by people rather than machines. Bike couriers aren’t lycra’d cycleobsessives with an expensive roadie, they’re ancient guys with doubtful contraptions and a crate on the back.

And now I wonder… I’m sure that the NZ of my childhood had a lot more “economically challenged” signs than it does today. When foreign imports were horrendously expensive. When it was highly unusual to fly anywhere. When I just ate plain peanut butter sandwiches and an apple for lunch (although that could just be who my parents were). I’m not sure – it’s not like I was paying much attention at the time. What happened? And what are the reliable signs that a country’s people are doing well for themselves?

Luckily, as a science graduate I can leave those sorts of questions to someone with a BA.

Next Post

12 04 2010

To the Chinatown Preservation Society

9 04 2010

I would like to start this post with a shout out to historical preservation societies everywhere.  Granted, I know very little about these shadowy groups (although lawn bowls and angry letters to the newspaper spring to mind). But I’m assuming there was some sort of super historical preservation conglomeration that helped make this corner of Singapore the way it is.

Chinatown. It’s like a little timewarp bubble next to the downtown buildings. Little streets lined with 2-storey houses with long window shutters and red tile roofs. Night markets with lanterns strung above the shoppers below. Street stalls with dinners for $5.

The main street adjoining this area  covers off three of the four major religions within a couple of blocks. It’s like major supermarket chains competing by whacking their buildings right next to one another.  The buddhist temple is grand enough to have a street named after it, but the hindu temple is staging a lavish upgrade with enormous, exquisitely painted sculptures from their mythology, and they win by sheer number of deities to display. The mosque comes in third, I guess. (Images of Mohammed are not the current party line.)

Up the road (across squares lined with frangipani trees) are the high rises where I will be spending the vast majority of my time. Each high rise seems to hold a small town – tomorrow I will probably join a gym, buy a sim card and grab lunch without leaving the building where I work. There are so many floors that it helps to pressurise your ears, diver-style, when you’re going down to ground floor. And when you’re in the work cafeteria, you can look out the window and see the red tile rooves far below, and it’s like looking down through time.

The Unrealistic Institute – part 1

12 03 2010