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updated 1 February 2000

Where was b? 1999

Where's b?


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2 October 1999 -- ? -- Singapore


Sir Stamford Raffles, the British visionary, landed here in 1819. A year later the port had done $400,000 worth of trade. By 1825 it saw $22 million worth of trade. Today, if I'm not mistaken, Singapore and Rotterdam are the worlds largest ports.
One of the first jobs when the British moved in was to clear away the human skulls that littered the beaches. Slowly this archipelago of headhunters and pirates was tamed by the British (Malaysia/Singapore) and Dutch (Indonesia).

Singapore has earned a reputation as a clean, socially repressive, prosperous place. A Taiwan Chinese man explained to me some of the more sordid details of the Chinese dictatorship that rules Singapore. Stories he assured were not in the press or books. Most visitors are fascinated by the idea that chewing gum is illegal to import or sell. Drug trafficking carries the death penalty (as it does in Malaysia). Spitting and jay walking apparently carry stiff fines, but I've seen more jay walkers here than I've seen in Tokyo This place strives towards Japanese standards, but there's onlyone Japan and no place compares.

4 October

Today I spoke to Japanese, Indonesian, Pakistani, Indian, and English people. Everyone was fluent in English except the Japanese fella, but he was trying. He played John Lennon's "Imagine" on the classical guitar that I had borrowed from the reception desk. I tried to get the word about safety in Indonesia from the Indonesian guy. He didn't give me a great sense of confidence. The English girl was shopping for dive gear. The Pakistani woman with her three daughters had flown into Johor Baru only to find out that they needed a Visa to enter Malaysia. The girls recounted with humor how they thought they were going to jail, but instead they came to Singapore. The mother spoke of the generation gap in Pakistan and the need for the family to be strengthened. Talk that is beginning to sound like a broken record. Talk about a convergence of needs. And like everyone else you meet from the that hardcore section of the Middle East they quietly disavowed their rulers as lunatics with no popular support. Something that you will never hear a Chinese say. In fact I keep hearing how China is "opening up." I forgot to ask that person about the elimination of Falun Gong. I prefer the staunchly apolitcal Taiwanese- fatalisticly, almost exhausted- "Maybe they'll change the flag. Change the flower on my passport. I don't care. I just want to make money. I just want to live." He was the same guy who'd discovered Thailand. He said his language was English. He was one of many divorcees.

24 October
Teaching English
I've decided to hang up my hat in Singapore for awhile, six months according to the contract I've negotiated. I'm teaching English to students primarily from China, but I also have students from Thailand and Singapore. The students are much more active and vocal than their Japanese counterparts. For one thing, their English is more advanced because they are living in Singapore where English is widely spoken and printed. I hope to learn as much from my students as they do from me. Which brings me to the following question....
Why am I staying in Singapore?
When I set out on this extended journey I had two primary destinations: China and India. I had skirted around these two monsters and I'd decided it was time I have a first hand look. Both are somewhat intimidating places. India is a sort of nightmare/dream. In the words of an Indian in Malaysia, "Everything is wrong there. Everything is upside down." And likewise another person, "India is magical." Plenty of people have been bewitched by India, and plenty of people have vowed never to set foot on that ungodly subcontinent. Comment books at backpacker lodgings overflow with warnings: "You'll get your stuff snatched but it's all part of the India experience." A solo woman traveler writes, "If you like men masturbating while you're trying to eat you'll like India."
China is more orderly (read "straightjacketed"), than India, but shares the curse of overpopulation. The main problem with traveling in China is the lack of travel/tourist infrastructure. All of this is rapidly changing, however and China promises to be a reasonable destination in a decade or two. So what does this have to do with Singapore?
Singapore has the Chinese people and has plenty of Indians. You get a taste of China and India without the hassles and I can speak English. In China, as I witnessed and as I've been told, "There is no religion." The centuries of Buddhism and Confucian and Taoist cults have been officially erased from China, but they survive in Singapore and Malaysia. In other words, from a certain perspective, Singapore has a richer store of Chinese culture than China.And, unlike China, almost every sign in Chinese has been translated into English words or transcribed into English letters.
Likewise, the Indians have brought their Hindu and Muslim temples, festivals, and learning to Singapore. And the great thing is, English is the lingua franca. I can function with ease in Singapore and have high level conversations with people of various walks of life. Something difficult to do in other parts of Asia with the lack of English. Singapore is crossroads of Asia and the language used is English. This makes for a great melting pot and place of cultural study.

21 November
The daily grind
Living abroad, one is able to reduce life to its more essential properties. One is forced to cut awaya lot of fat that tends to crowd around a settled individual. Literally, the transient has less stuff. Metaphorically, the transient is forced to start anew in carving out a lifestyle.Each situation presents its own set of variables which will determine how one will live and make a living.

Greek flashback
For example, can anyone tell me how many kilos of food they consume each week? I sure can't. But when I lived in Athens I could, give or take a half a kilo. A kilo is about 2.2 lbs. First of all I had a strict budget. The fresh produce market (laiki agora) came to my neighborhood (Keramikos) on Tuesdays. It didn't take long to figure out how many kilos oftomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onions, potatoes, spinach, lemons, oranges etc. I would need to hold me until the next market day. I supplemented the fresh or wet produce with dry goods which for me meant beans, rice, and spices These I purchased from the permanent market. In addition to this I had a place where I bought freshly roasted and ground Greek coffee. At another place, I bought fresh extra virgin olive oil that could fill a room with the fragrance of olives. At another shop I purchased feta and olives. Near my home I had a place where I refilled my liter bottles of the Greek wine known as retsina. I bought red wine vinegar from the same guy. So, everything I bought was sold in bulk, by the gram, by the kilo or by the liter. That was Greece, and that was a different kind of getting back to basics.

In Singapore the basics are not quite as picturesque.
Where I live
I live in Little India which is one of the more colorful neighborhoods in Singapore. If I get away from work early enough I can walk past Indian prostitutes decked out in unparalleled finery. Colorful, flowing sarees, goldenjewelry, and rather blank if serene expressions on their faces. They stand with their backs against the columns that form a narrow passageway between the busy street and the buildings. The stand discretely hidden from the traffic on the street. If pestered by police on foot they can say that they are waiting for their husbands. Meanwhile, Indian men can make it difficult to pass because they are standing inches away from the women studying them with intense care. And, as I've said, the passageway is narrow. I've never seen anything like the way these Indian men meditate on prostitutes. There is almost a look of wonder in the men's eyes; this, of course, utterly contrasts with the disinterested worldliness of the women.

The Basics
My room
I live in a reputable hotel. I was offered larger room, a room with a window, but I settled on the small room with no windows. The price is very competitive. The Chinese owner said that teaching was an honorable profession and gave me a discount. At $450 Singapore/mo. including phone, TV and air-con it would be difficult to match in S'pore. The size, however is smaller than the average American bathroom. And, of course, there is no bathroom. That's out in hallway.

I work Mon-Sat. On Saturday morning I wash clothes in buckets in the hallway bathroom. I have 3 shirts, 2 pants, 1 tie, 3 pairs of socks, and 3 boxer shorts. I wash socks and boxer shorts during the week as well. Monday mornings I use the hotel's iron to press my clothes for the week.

As for food, I obviously don't have a kitchen so I take my meals at the various vegetarian restaurants in my neighborhood. I have more than a dozen pure vegetarian restaurants to choose from along the 10 minute walk between my hotel and work. I alternate between Indian, Chinese, and Malay food. Food is excellent inS'pore.  

As for drink, I clearly don't have a fridge, which is for the bestbecause beer is outrageously expensive (yes, more expensive thanJapan!).  I do, however, have an electric kettle provided by the pleasantand helpful staff of the hotel.  I use it to heat water for instant Nescafeand Chinese green tea.  Yes, I happily drink my dissolved coffeecrystals and know that someday I will return to civilization and an enviablearray of coffee making apparatuses waiting on me in Louisiana.  I haven'tforgotten you, my glass French press, my cool little one-cup Italian espressomaker and my Greek coffee pot!  

Free time in the morning
I work from noon until 9:30 pm so I have to head for work and eat lunch around 11 am. If I have time before that I will escape my cell and air out in a cafe. I have yet to find a cafe with character so I've settled on a sidewalk cafe in the air-conditioned street that is part of the the Japanese Seiyu department store complex. Ok, this might be difficult to grasp. Yes, the street is air-conditioned. Singaporeans love air conditioning . If you learn how to navigate through all of the shopping malls and department stores you can damn near walk across Singapore in air-conditioned comfort. Basically what has happened at this particular place is a block, crossed with 3 short alleys has been covered by a sort of glass or plastic bubble. Sound extravagant?

That concludes the menial outline of my average week in Singapore.
More colorful details to follow when I find the time.

What does a coffee cost?
S$.50 to S$15 (with all the works). The average cafe price is S$2.50. What does a beer cost? A 500ml bottle at the same place where coffee isS$.50 will cost S$5. Half of such a bottle in a place where coffee is S$3 will costS$8-9. A pitcher (4 beers not 6) of beer at happy hour is $15 ($10 US). Normal hoursS$32-35 ($20 US).

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