Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Our First Impressions of Singapore

February 2017
After two flights and a layover in Dubai, we finally arrived in Singapore. Once we worked our way through immigration and customs, we found our driver waiting in the arrivals lounge and were delivered safely to our new accommodation. The motorway we travelled along was lined with tall trees and tall buildings and we felt that the rumours were correct: Singapore is a city of tall trees and tall buildings.

We settled into our lodgings, where we were shown around the various amenities (such as the gym and breakfast room), and given user manuals for the appliances in our studio apartment. As we had landed in the morning, we struggled to stay awake until nighttime in order to avoid jetlag. The view from our window was beautiful, with a tree-lined boulevard just below us, the National Library on the left and the Singapore Flyer (aka ferris wheel) in the distance.

Though it took us a few days to adjust to the time difference, we still got out and enjoyed our new city. We marvelled at the greenery - everywhere you went were trees and shrubberies and flowers. There always seemed to be someone doing maintenance as well. Leaf blowers, pruners and guys planting new ferns were common sights, as were people picking up litter. We scarcely saw a single discarded cigarette butt or empty crisp packet in our first days in the city. It was so clean! We knew before we arrived that there would be quite a difference in climate, and it was exactly as expected: hot and humid. Looking at the weather forecast is an exercise in futility, because 95% of the time it declares thunderstorms. The problem being you never know when there might be a thunderstorm! So predicting one every day is a safe bet because if it thunderstorms, no worries, and if it doesn't then everyone is pleasantly surprised. I find that it tends to be nice and sunny in the morning and then rain a bit in the afternoon. It's very rare that it will be sunny all day or rainy all day.

As part of our accommodation, we were allowed access to the breakfast buffet on weekdays. There was quite a spread, with various types of bread, pastries, cereals, fruits, and hot foods (like soups and vegetables). It was different each day, and whenever we saw that rock melon was on offer, we loaded up!

While there was a pool at our disposal, it was located in another Wilby forty minutes away via free shuttle. I did go a couple of times with a girl who I became fast friends with (one of Yannick's co-worker's girlfriends who lived in the same building as us), though the distance meant it was a bit of a hassle and one time it had begun to rain once we arrived. I did make frequent use of the terrace, which was an open area on the fifth floor of our Wilby with deck chairs and a couple of fountains for scruffy pigeons to bathe in. On sunny mornings, that's where I could be found! On the same floor was the gym, where I took up running with my new friend and now 'gym buddy'. In three weeks I went from running less than 1km to 10km! There's nothing like a little friendly competition to get those kilometers flying by!

It certainly was an experience to live in a serviced apartment. For one thing, we had a housekeeper clean our room three times a week! There was also a doorman, who would hold open the door for you any time you wanted to leave or enter the building, and handymen were on call in case anything were to cease functioning. One night, our air conditioning unit broke and once morning rolled around I called for someone to fix it they and came with their ladder and R2D2 vacuum cleaner to save the day.

Not only did we have so many useful services within the building, we also had the Bugis shopping complex practically next door to us! Inside could be found an array of reasonably priced clothing stores, eateries, a pharmacy, and a supermarket. I quickly discovered that the drink-and-snack stand Jollibean makes amazing soymilk (they produce it fresh every morning from scratch!) and managed to try almost every drink on the menu. However, I found the supermarket in Bugis to be ridiculously expensive for most items.

The oddly named Cold Storage is excellent if you want to purchase what are commonly thought to be more Western products such as cheese, and imported brands like Whittaker's (a New Zealand chocolate company), Casino (a French supermarket brand with everything from jams to couscous), Booja Booja (a UK non-dairy ice cream brand) and even a whole line of Waitrose products. However, I knew that I had to shop around if I wanted to maintain my prized frugality.

So off I went! First I made a trip to a nearby shopping mall called Suntec City, which has an overpass crossing a busy street with wonderful views of the skyline. Inside was Giant Hypermarket, which proved to be a much better provider of produce, as well as $0.80 tofu. Between Cold Storage and Giant, Giant was the clear winner (unless I wanted Nākd bars or other luxuries). However, the top of the top turned out to be Sheng Siong - a Chinese hypermarket at the entrance to Little India. Fresh fruits and vegetables at rock bottom prices meant that my first journey there was like stepping into a wonderland. $3.30 for three mangoes?! Yes please! $2.50 for a big bag of ripe tomatoes?! Load me up! And it wasn't just the produce that was affordable either! Every aisle was a joy to behold.

With bountiful produce, I took to the kitchen and whipped up some excellent meals. Vietnamese spring rolls, stir fries, and gochujang noodles. I also managed to fulfil our home-bound cravings by making pasta dishes, burrito bowls, tabbouleh, black bean burgers and ratatouille.

A major plus for me was getting to sample a cornucopia of new tropical fruits I'd never tried before, such as snakefruit and mangosteen!

Eating out was quite a new experience as well. Hawker centres are popular, and are basically a collection of street food stalls stuck together in a large building like a food court. Prices are often rock bottom for local style food ($2.50-$6 is typical, and can go even lower for small meals), while Western food averages $10-12. Hot tip for hawker centres: the tables can get snapped up fast at peak times, so use a portable packet of tissues to reserve yourself a seat. People are so polite that they won't take your spot if you reserve it with tissues. Umbrellas also work.

I found an amazing place just around the corner from Wilby: The Fortune Centre! It's an office building, but has a couple dozen eateries in it as well, and almost all of them are vegetarian Chinese restaurants. I visited multiple times to try new places, though my favourite was Hotcakes - a little café that serves excellent vegan laksa and nasi lemak, as well as decadent vegan cakes. Though I haven't yet been brave enough to try it myself, in Singapore young people call their elders 'auntie' and 'uncle'. It's customary to say things like "thank you, uncle" when being served by an older male. I'll have to try it at least once before we leave!

The area in which we live is called Bugis, so named for an ethnic group from Indonesia who would come to trade before the arrival of the British to Singapore. We found it to be lively and well-connected, and was far less touristy than many other parts of downtown (though this did make finding a postcard surprisingly difficult). The neighbourhood was known for its high population of transgender sex workers between the 50's and the 80's and attracted holidayers from overseas, as well as American GIs and sailors. Unfortunately, the construction of the Bugis underground station in the mid-1980's caused severe disruption of nightlife and the trans cultural scene was forever lost to Bugis.

An interesting aspect of the country is that Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. You'll often see all four represented on official signs for things such as emergency exits. The public transport is so organised, and puts the transport of every other city I've visited to shame. There are floor markings to ensure that no one attempting to get onto the MRT (underground) blocks the way for those getting off, and friendly reminders are everywhere kindly telling you not to eat or drink or smoke or bring durians aboard for the comfort of all passengers. It's brilliant! You'll be fined if you make such transgressions, and the justice system is rather strongly enforced. We've seen several posters reminding us that "Molest is a crime". Drug smuggling and kidnapping can incur the death penalty, if you grope somebody you can receive up to seven years in prison, and public canings are a thing. Perhaps because of this, Singapore feels very safe, and though I'm still careful, I couldn't imagine being robbed or manhandled here.

To sum it up, our first impressions of Singapore are:
1. Green everywhere! Trees, flowers, parks!
2. Such a modern city. Shopping malls everywhere! You're never far from a toilet in Singapore, even if you have to squat over it.
3. The food is great, as long as you know where to go. Some poor fools have confessed that they paid $20 for ramen, and $90 for pizza and a beer. To avoid these mistakes, visit hawker centres and lowkey eateries, and shop at the good supermarkets (if you want more information on this, don't hesitate to ask - I have all the insider info).
4. We enjoy being tidied up after like spoilt children.