We make our way through Changi airport in Singapore quite quickly. First, the immigration line where the rubber stamps are flying. Next customs and quarantine who surprisingly aren’t interested in scanning bags or asking any kinds of questions. We don’t have much trouble navigating to the correct terminal to connect with the MRT into the city. As we start punching in our ticket requests at a ticket booth two staff briskly rush up and treat us like true tourists. Removing notes from my hand before I can insert them in the machine, they replace them with notes of a smaller denomination. Next they’ve decided that we should only order one ticket at a time. I’m sure there are some good reasons why we need to make the transaction in such a detailed and specific way, but that’s knowledge they’re not imparting. I’m satisfied to take the two tickets that are produced and try and memorise the rapid fire instructions being issued about changing trains, platforms and refunds. We’re quickly bundled off in the direction of the train and have no trouble making our way to our final stop, Chinatown.
The subway efficiently spits us out into the night at the exit mentioned in the hostel directions. We find ourselves on Pagoda Street which is lined with night market stalls – a riot of colour, noise and smell. Just to add to the assault on our senses, we’ve left the air conditioning behind and a wave of heat and humidity hits full force. If we knew exactly where we were going we’d be disorientated. And guess what? We don’t. The hostel directions have ended abruptly with no accommodation in sight. I scour the map I’ve picked up and can’t find Mosque St anywhere nearby. By a process of elimination I choose the only street on the map that doesn’t have a name on it and wander in that direction. Sure enough, it’s Mosque St. Just as well, as we’re sweating like we’ve just run a marathon carrying several 15 kg of potatoes on our backs. We ring the bell at a closed wooden door and after a couple of minutes a short young Asian man emerges.
This gives us our first experience of ‘Singlish’. It takes a bit of getting used to. It’s like English, but stripped bare of any surplus words, grammar, or polite modifiers. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re listening to someone with little grasp of English vocabulary who’s being openly hostile and rude as short commands are spat out like rapid machine gun fire. “You do this. You go there. You not do that.” Ultimately it’s not too hard to follow along and you learn to ignore the lack of pleases and thankyous. We’re more used to Asian cultures at the opposite end of the scale who go overboard with politeness and friendliness. It’s hard to adjust and realise that there’s no offence intended. It’s just language with an extreme economy of words – literally cutting out all the BS and then some. Refreshing in some ways as it really does remove all the extra waffle we’re accustomed to. I guess it’s just too damn hot and humid to waste time on words that aren’t absolutely necessary.
With keys and codes in hand we’re ready to settle into our room. The Taj Mahal this is most definitely not. It’s a worthy contender for the title of worst accommodation of the trip – though the St Clair in Vancouver is still up there. With space at a premium in Singapore and a limited budget on our part, we’re not getting a whole lot for our cash. The two good points about the Backpackers Inn in Chinatown – there’s air conditioning and free wifi access. As for the rest, we’re not quite sure whether we might accidentally have become inmates in an overcrowded Singapore prison. Spending a couple of months here would surely be a great deterrent for anyone with criminal inclinations.
The bedroom is a very small windowless cell that barely contains what they’re calling a bed. It has one sheet just about covering the mattress, and two woolen blankets that would barely cover a child The uneven surface means I sleep with my head below the rest of my body and the slope prevents me from lying anywhere but in the very middle where it’s at its bumpiest and lumpiest. The walls between the rooms effectively demonstrate the meaning of paper thin. We can hear every cough and snuffle in stereo surround from all around us. As I lean against the wall to read, I’m constantly expecting to fall through to the other side. It seems to be a single sheet of plywood covered in a little plaster and paint. Any time a door is opened or shut nearby you can feel the wall suck in and out with the movement of the air. We soon discover we’re sharing the room with a family of ants who manage to infest almost everything. Aside from that, there’s one toilet on each floor with a showerhead attached to the wall if you want to risk it. If it weren’t for the heat we’d be sorely tempted not to risk it. There’s something about showering in a room ripe with the stench of sewerage that seems to defeat the purpose.
The hostel is located in the aforementioned Chinatown. This is a lively area with a plethora of stalls and restaurants. Even Brodie isn’t too sure about sampling the wares though. Especially as we’re hounded down the street by waiters and waitresses trying to drag us into their establishment should we so much as slow a fraction when we pass them by. We see stalls with slabs of unidentifiable meats stacked up high. Nothing is looking terribly appetising in the dark and once we spot the golden arches sign ahead of us, it’s inevitable that we’re going to succumb to the lure of a big mac and fries before retiring to sleep off the effects of the days travels. A more detailed exploration of Singapore will have to wait.