I found myself once again in Singapore under the tent at McDonalds on Orchard Road one more step towards officially being able to legally work in Indonesia and one more step towards not receiving my paychecks in the form of an envelope full of cash at the end of the month (although I will dearly miss being paid like a hit-man). Foreigners wandered the rows of tables, eyes searching while others hung back clutching their passports to their chest, doubtful reluctance plainly written on their faces. Being formerly versed in the ambiguously legality of dubious visa processing, I confidently strolled past the counter, still bitter about the strict breakfast only menu. (Seriously is there a petition I can sign to get fries and nuggets at 10 in the morning?) I plopped down on a plastic chair and handed my passport and papers over to the agent and signed on the line. I was ready to embark on my 8 hour solo tour of Singapore.
Researching the top destinations in Singapore had yielded a list of super-luxe malls so long I felt my credit card sweating with apprehension in my pocket. After imagining being handed an envelope full of cash that had already been spent, I made the wise decision to make a more cultural stop. Choosing between Chinatown (because every big city needs a chinatown) or Little India was difficult, but after deliberation I decided to make the 5 km pilgrimage on foot to Little India.
I walked past all the extravagant edifices paying devout homage to consumerist worship, throngs of people buzzing about in material ecstasy: the perfect picture of a flourishing economy. Comparable to the week before Christmas crowds, only these people were clearly enjoying their time. I found strange comfort in being surrounded by familiar high fashion brands, even if I had never been able to afford them at home, and certainly wouldn’t be able to here in this pristine shopper’s paradise. Joggers passed me, and stretched on benches. In contrast to my daily life, I wasn’t at risk of falling in a sewage ditch, or getting hit by a motorcycle. I was visiting a different planet, a metropolitan utopia. The city architecture was breath taking. Each building showed an affinity for glass and geometry; a unifying theme remixed in more ways than Avicci’s levels.
The 90 degree heat soaked into my skin and I was soon leaking sweat underneath my backpacking bag like a linebacker, a linebacker who left her shorts and t- shirt on her bed that morning by accident. After about an hour the skyline that was once boasting glimmering skyscrapers faded into quaint French style colonial brick buildings, then those shrunk into brightly colored masonry and street shops began to appear. The smell of curry, saffron and incense permeated the atmosphere. A few more steps and I was soon walking behind long braids swinging against beautifully patterned cloth of rich turquoise, purple, gold, and emerald.I soon found myself at a historic 1940’s temple dedicated to the goddess Kalimann studying the visitors intently, hesitant to disturb the place of worship, but eager to see the interior. Okay, so everyone takes their shoes off, then washing their feet…Alright more tourists…Green Light. Slipping off my shoes and socks felt then running cold water over my feet felt divine already. I entered the temple and beheld a buzzing hub of worship.
Inside there were twin lines leading to priests busily dabbing ash onto the foreheads of men women and children with sacred efficiency. Different altars for unique deities enclosed the room in a circle of brightly painted statues decorated with fragrant leis of marigold and tuberose. I wandered awkwardly not praying or lighting candles, hyper aware of the irreverent sound of my camera shutter opening and closing as I snapped photos of the scene. I was being extra observant trying to gauge whether my super tourist indulgences were bothering anyone when I noticed many women sitting cross legged on the ground were chatting into blackberries in between prayers, Ganesh charms on red thread swaying to the rhythm of their conversation. Men seemed to be talking business leaning on the white stone of the exterior patio while women in a spectrum of saris lit candles and prayed. The temple was part holy place of worship and part social pavilion. I wandered around indulging in the smell of incense, flower petals color and culture until I felt like a loiterer. On my way out I copied the custom of ringing one of the many bells on the door and was left to ponder the meaning of my departing action.
I walked the streets and marveled at the variety of textiles, sunglasses, key chains, and merlion statues. A merlion sounds like exactly what it is: half lion, half mermaid and all Singaporean. It wasn’t long before I resolved that I needed to visit the money changer. And before I knew it I was handing over cash to a street side vendor who had patiently waited as I debated the color of my new sari for at least 10 minutes. (How can one know if coral, pink or green looks better on her skin color alone?) I recruited him into the role that either my best friend or mom has and was soon soliciting advice as to which color looks better with my skin. Green won out and soon I was stuffing a bag heavy with 6 meters (18 ft) of material into my backpack. I wandered into a bazaar full of flowers hanging on string, pashmina that I couldn’t even bear to look at in the 90 degree heat, scarves and knick-knacks. I picked up a soapstone carved elephant and one of the famous merlions enchanted by the spectacle of the half lion half fish beast that is the emblem of Singaporean culture. A fitting mix for such a diverse culture all living on one tiny island.
My day consisted of 9 hours of marveling at the sights, smells and sounds of Singapore that left my hips, calves and feet aching. As my plane took off I stared down at the small bustling island that I was leaving; a brilliant display of colored lights in the darkness longing for more time to explore but eager to get home and try on my new sari. As soon as I arrived in my apartment in Malang the following day I styled the huge bolt of fabric on my body in various ways and engaged in a female tradition as old as Myspace: taking pictures in the mirror. Playing dress up in my own little piece of Little India