A crowded, noisy alley, somewhere off a main street. Low ceilings, assorted plastic tables and chairs, the combined smell of a hundred different types of food all boiling, shimmering, frying, soaking up flavours. In a corner, a stall with behind it, an old lady with a big rusty knife, cutting up vegetables and something that might once have been a sausage. Men in white aprons with red and brown stains covering most of the surface, shouting at potential customers. A glass plate, with behind it, hanging from metal hooks, whole roasted ducks. The din of glass against glass, of pots being scraped, of orders for food, repeated a thousand of times a day.
"one Rojak" , "Two Ginger Tea" , "Lor Mee, terima kasih"
I'm sitting on one of those chairs, eating a cocomilk based soup with at least ten different pieces of meat, most likely from as many different animals. Poornima is working on a vegetable soup that doesn't look any less adventurous for the taste buds. A little bit away, in a plastic box on a shelf, a dozen fat toads are gawking at me, blissfully unaware of the premature end that surely awaits them.
Wait, where are we again?
Look out of the alley, and you'll see a clean street, with clean cars riding in front of clean, very high buildings. Not Indonesia, then. And also not Malaysia any more. Must be Singapore, that city-state where you are fined for chewing gum, where all the big businesses go who want to be in Asia but don't really feel like going to the sticks, where the noble citizens travel from their up town homes to their down town offices in squeaky clean metros, never leaving the safety of the ever present air conditioning.
This abundance of local food, I must admit, did not fit in my prejudiced picture of this peculiar place, but I'm happy to discover than in between the shining malls, big roads and architectural prowess, something of the older Asia can still be found.
Aimlessly wandering the green wide streets of Singapore, it strikes me how my trip has taken me from third world right up to first. From Cambodia to Vietnam to Malaysia to here, each country seems to be doing, in it's own way, better than the last. Singapore, this tiny country sitting like a cherry on the upturned pie of mainland South East Asia, is the pinnacle of perfectness. Perfect that is, if you want to do business, if you want to go shopping, or if you suffer from mysophobia.
Some bigger cities in Asia make me feel like a seagull floating above the waves of an endless chaotic ocean, in search for a small island or quiet ship to land for a while and rest my wings. Never a chance to be by yourself to read a book or shelter from the sun, no space to sit, all surfaces of the city in use by its inhabitants to cook, eat, sell, sleep. Not so in Singapore, where the lanes and parks offer benches to rest, and where many a big building is in fact a big Public building where one can enter, find a quiet spot and write ones diary as I do now.
The huge parks, vivid green from the rain that falls everyday and from being less than 150 kilometre from the equator, are devoid of people, everyone choosing shopping or working above wandering the city's many green spaces. I enjoy Singapore enormously, but mainly because of the contrast it offers with what came before in my journey. This place with its outrageous architecture (three skyscrapers with what looks like an alien mothership on top), strict rules ($100 fine for eating in the metro, $1000 fine for riding your bicycle through a pedestrian tunnel), and overemphasis on shopping (I saw a poster for new metro line, stating its completion would save you precious time to "do the things that matter most to you", depicting three ladies carrying assorted shopping bags) lacks a bit of soul, in my personal opinion.
But man, do they try to make up for this by being modern, artistic and multicultural. Zipping through the city in the high speed Mass Rapid Transport lines, I admire this place, with its fantastic museums and designs, and with its people who came from all over the planet to work in this financial epicentre. And whenever the cleanness, the abundance of traffic signs and the complete lack of honking cars gets on my nerves, I just think of that plastic box on the shelf, and I am reminded that I am still firmly in Asia.