Singapore: a city (re)created

I spent just over a week in Singapore, and over the course of my time there, I developed a sense that the city-state is a little disorientated. It feels like the government is tenaciously determined to turn Singapore into a world class destination, kitting it out with luxury shopping malls, a slick metro service, shiny sky scrapers and top end attractions. It’s as if Singapore has carefully selected features of iconic cities around the world and is systematically and strategically combining them to create an ideal place.

But sadly this means major physical reconstruction and the effective overhaul of the country’s architectural history. Has Singapore forgotten that a strong sense of national identity and the preservation of important history are central to the success and appeal of a city? My short time in the country and my interactions with locals would suggest so.

Actually, Singapore reminds me of the classic line from the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? / They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.”

It’s probably clear by now that I wasn’t hugely inspired by my time in Singapore, but that’s not to say that I didn’t find some little treasures and learn some valuable lessons. I’ll be sharing these soon.

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20131202-143625.jpgPictures taken from the sky deck at Marina Bay Sands (pictured above) with a Canon 600D.

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Finding Malacca

My plans have shifted somewhat over the past few weeks, and I now find myself in Singapore, waiting for my flight to Vietnam tomorrow. I left my place of work in Malaysia a month ahead of schedule, favouring more time to travel over extra money. Before crossing the border into Singapore to apply for my Vietnamese visa, I made a quick detour through the fabled Malacca.

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Malacca is a city steeped in history. In the 15th and 16th centuries, it was the centre of the Malay world, until it was seized by Portuguese traders in 1511. The city was subsequently colonized by the Dutch, the British, the Dutch again, and then the British again before Malaysia declared its independence in Malacca at last in 1957. This layered cultural history is evident in the city’s architecture and infrastructure.

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I spent two nights in Malacca, and used my time walking around the beautiful streets and historical sites, exploring the famous Jonker Walk, and sampling the delights of the city’s bustling street food markets.

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Malacca is a charming city, but it is filled with tourists and that always makes me feel self conscious. One morning, I awoke early and went for a stroll to see if I could find local Malacca. I walked across canal bridges and through dirty backstreets to find it, but find it I did.

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Eventually it was scenes of elderly men reading newspapers and women washing clothes outside back doors that made me finally feel connected in Malacca.

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I picked up a kopi to go from a little Chinese corner restaurant, and as I strode through the streets, swinging my kopi packet along with me, I felt like I had made friends with Malaysia. There’s nothing that says you’ve become acquainted with a country quite like the realization that you enjoy slurping strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk out of a plastic packet through a straw.

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No durian, no peanuts, no duck!

Sometimes adventure comes disguised as pain and discomfort. Sometimes it appears in the most unexpected forms. In Malaysia, I had an adventure that took me to a doctor’s room in the town near the lodge, a doctor of Chinese medicine.

I’ll spare you the details of the events that necessitated my visit, suffice to say that I spent two days looking like C-3PO, trying to teach riding lessons – where the students generally circle repeatedly around their instructor – with almost zero mobility in my neck. A colleague recommended the services of a certain Chinese doctor, and I was desperate, so I agreed.

My colleague must have a sadistic streak, because, having been to see this doctor himself before, he knew full well what I was in for. And yet, all he said was, “He’s really good, you will see.”

After some winding through dingy back-alleys after work, we finally found the doctor we were looking for. We presented ourselves at the reception window. Behind the receptionist, rows of dusty manila folders lined the walls, with tatty cardboard tabs in orange and green categorising them by letter. The thought that entered my mind at the sight of them was, “Many people have come before me, it must be okay”. I produced my passport, and the receptionist filled a fresh patient card with my details. Another one to add to the rows. We sat on the bench, watching the LED sign on the wall, which read ’36’.

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’37’. We entered the doctor’s chamber. Patient number 37 for the day? For the afternoon? From the moment I stepped through the doctor’s door, everything happened very fast! A small man wearing a face mask welcomed me into his room, sat me down on a small wooden chair and, standing behind me, asked me where I felt pain. I reached for the source of the pain at the base of my neck. Without hesitating, he grabbed my upper body firmly and started eliciting the most excruciating pain in places I didn’t even know were painful. With each muscle that he clutched he said, “you have pain here, but not here”, and he would grab the same muscle on the opposite side, which, as he predicted, was not in pain. It was debilitating, but I was in raptures because it was so phenomenal to me that he could know all of this with such precision when all I had done was briefly point, inaccurately it would appear, at a place between my shoulders. With each pair of muscles, which ranged from behind my ears to my forearms, and right down to my lower hip area, I blurted out a squawking Yes, in confirmation of his statements. After about six tortured yeses he said, unmoved, “Acupuncture”. Somehow I suspected it was not a question, so I responded with “Okay”.

I felt the same way I felt right before I bungee jumped: I knew if I thought about it, I might not do it, so I just let it happen. Before I had a chance to ask any questions, still sitting on my wooden stool, I was presented with a sealed needle; a routine demonstration to assure me that the needle was sterile. I have to admit I didn’t really know what was going on at this point, and it was probably better that way. The doctor stood behind me, and I could feel a strong, warm sensation down the right side of my neck. In my mind’s eye I could see him wiggling the needle in several points down my neck. And then it was over. Or so I thought.

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No sooner did that end than I was transferred over to a bed and told to lie on my stomach. What came next had me squealing and kicking my feet wildly as I tried to endure the pain. It was the kind of experience that, when I think about it now, the memory appears to me in anime. The doctor is a super fast karate hero, manipulating my body at lightning speed and leaping into the air with every exaggerated movement as he cracked my bones and twisted my muscles. My face appears with big crosses for eyes, a huge, gasping mouth, and drops of water flying off my checks as I scream in pain in a high pitched yelp. The doctor didn’t let up. My desperate pleas did not move him; he just kept on cracking.

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When my torture was finally over, I returned to my stool, tried to straighten up my face and awaited further instruction. “I give you herbal medicine,” he said. “If it’s still painful in three days, come back.” Right, I thought. Alright.

I had questions, so many questions. How did you know so quickly what my exact problem was? How did you know all the places where it did and didn’t hurt? How did I develop this pain; has it been accumulating for some time, or did I hurt myself suddenly? The only one of these he chose to answer was the last. He stood behind me again, and started up with more poking, this time more analytically, comparing the left side to the right. “Six months,” he said. And that was it.

Then he told me, “Also, no durian, no peanuts, no duck.” What? “Why?”, I asked. “Very very toxic. I’m sorry”. “Right,” I thought, “no durian, no peanuts, no duck”. And with that, I was dispatched to the reception again to collect my piles of nondescript, secret recipe herbal medicine. For all I know, for the next three days I could have been an unwilling supporter of the rhino horn trade and the thought made me shudder ever time I took my prescribed dosage.

I really don’t know what happened that day in the doctor’s room. I have no idea how he figured me out so quickly, what he did to me, or what was in the pills he gave me afterwards. The only thing I do know is that as I walked out of the reception and turned to wave goodbye, I realised that I had full mobility in my neck again. Already! All the muscles the doctor had poked and prodded were a little tender for two days afterwards, but as soon as that went away I was as good as new. It was astonishing.

I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to go to just any Chinese doctor on a street corner somewhere, but my experience of this particular Chinese doctor not only cured my pain with the most phenomenal speed, it also sparked in me a new fascination with Chinese medicine and healing techniques. And it was a little adventure all of its own.

Parks and pencils, a lesson in colour

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Sprocket Rocket, Fujifilm Superia 200

I sat beside a rock, switching between quick-sketching passers by, and slowly detailing a drawing of the skyline that I returned to every time I visited the park. It had been my neighborhood retreat; a patch of green overlooking the bustling grey city. Overlooking it, but removed from it, as if offering perspective and distance from the trudge of the high-rise life. Here I could escape into a novel, disappear behind a lens, or immerse myself in my own pencil-point world.

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On this particular winter afternoon, I had retuned to my skyline drawing after a considerable interlude, and I was lost in the shadows and the trees. A small girl appeared beside me, maybe three or four years old, a dummy throbbing beneath her sweet little nose. She must have been standing there for some time, because as I looked up she was ready with her question; head tilted to one side, “What are you drawing?” I held my sketchbook up to the horizon, expecting she would make the connection. Still she looked perplexed. I pointed, “The city skyline. Can you see?”

“But why are there no colours?”

I was enchanted by this little sprite of a child. She plonked down beside me and watched me draw. I had many pencils, but she was right, I had no colours. Nonetheless, she accepted my offer of joining me. Her nondescript lines and shapes, the innocent interpretation of her surrounds was far more imaginative than my own. I was transfixed.

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Unabashed and unconstrained, she assumed a connection with me in a way that is all too uncommon amongst adults; a momentary friendship requiring only the acknowledgement that we are both human. We shared each other’s company as if we were lifelong friends with nothing left to tell, leaving only common knowing and common being, quiet and content.

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In the midst of this magic, a close friend of mine arrived to meet me, and found me sitting cross legged on the grass with a glowing bundle of freedom. She had brought me an apple, which my new friend was also eager to share. And so we sat, three girls, eating apples and enjoying the last rays of sunlight, until the little girl disappeared again, just as quickly as she had arrived.

20131023-211204.jpgLomo LC-A+, Kodak 200

An Afternoon on the River

The best adventures are often just around the corner, especially when you live in South Africa. This one took shape on the Kleinemonde river in the Eastern Cape, something of a second home for me. The sky sang, and the water listened, and all the answers danced in the breeze.

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Kodak 200, LC-A+