Monday, June 28, 2004

Sometimes You Just Need to be a Tourist

Mer-Lion: fish or feline, good luck or acid reflux?

After a long week of meeting with business partners as well as preparing for an arduous internal account strategy presentation with Asia Pacific management that took place on Friday, I was ready for the weekend. I sat in an outdoor restaurant alone on Friday evening after work and people-watched and contemplated what I might do over the weekend. I felt like being a tourist. I mean I’ve now lived here for three weeks and I still haven’t seen all the must-see places. But seeing is only half of the equation. Being Singapore, where finding and eating good food is a national pastime, I needed to also experience some must-taste endeavors as well.

Singapore prides itself on being a true garden city. City planners aspired to build what they called “a city amongst a garden” and from the plentiful shade trees along city streets or flowering tropical plants with vivid colors that line highway dividers and overpasses, I’d have to say that they have accomplished their goal. So with Singapore’s green thumb firmly intact, it makes perfect sense that high on any tourist’s list of things to see is the city’s amazing Botanical Garden.

This sprawling expanse of heavenly beauty is one of the few places within the city where one cannot see high-rise office towers. Rather than steel and concrete rising from the earth it has been replaced here by large tropical foliage, dense grasses, and vibrant blooms of all sizes and colors. There was also auditory beauty that was paired that day with the visual variety as the garden was hosting a free jazz concert. What a venue!

What was most amazing was the garden’s prized orchid collection. An entire section of the garden’s estate has been dedicated to the display and study of these flora fascinations. Every color and variation was represented and many new varieties have been created right there on the premises. Walking amongst the trees, lakes, and blooms helped bring some sanity back into my week. I could have easily stayed there all day.

Later in the evening, I decided to try a Singaporean specialty: Black Pepper Crab. I had asked a cab driver of a good place to have such a meal during a ride home. He pointed me in the direction of a spot that only the locals go for such a dish. He told me that there would be no foreigners there, which was a fact I appreciated. Before he dropped me off, he jotted down the name and address on a piece of paper. What Singapore cab drivers lack in using turn signals, giving right-of-way, or generally staying in their own lane, they more than make up for in friendliness I have found.

I arrived at the local place which turned out to be an open-air food court known in Singapore as Hawker Centers. They are very prevalent and possess some of the tastiest local food around. Hawker Centers evolved from the early street vendors that sold their culinary delights from small curb side carts in the old days. In attempts to clean up the city’s visual appeal (remember this is Singapore so anything that has to do with clean is immediately implemented) the street vendors and their carts were ushered into large bustling food courts set back from the road. Each Hawker Center vendor has his/her own small space with kitchen and refrigeration equipment for which they pay rent. Clientele goes from vendor to vendor and orders a mix of food to compile a customized course of food. Fresh lime or sugar cane juice from one vendor satisfies the drink order, bar-b-qued lamb satay with peanut sauce captures the appetizer requirement, and choosing your own crab to represent your main course can round out the process. You just have to tell each vendor where you are sitting and they will come and deliver you the food at your table, where you then settle up the tab with each vendor individually. Each table is numbered so that the vendors can find you. Because I was the only foreigner that evening, I really didn’t have to tell them what my number was. I think they could find me just fine.

My Black Pepper Crab was delicious. It was steamed with a coating of black pepper sauce that made it spicy. The lady who brought me my crab included a nut cracker to make my un-harnessing of the crab meat from the shell a little more efficient. She also brought a bowl of water with a fresh lime inside to dip my fingers into on occasion, because eating is done with the hands when fresh crab is involved and it tends to get pretty messy.

Sunday I decided to head down to Boat Quay (pronounced Key) and take in the sites. The Singapore River runs along the Quay, which was one of the most important waterways in the whole Orient at the turn of the 20th century. Small water-going vessels called Bumboats can still be found going up and down the river, but the only commodity they transport today are tourists.

The Singapore River empties out into the harbor which is protected by the symbol of Singapore, the Mer-Lion. Half fish and half lion this bi-polar creature is said to bring good luck to passing ships. The imagery of the lion is everywhere in Singapore. It was supposedly here at the mouth of the Singapore River in the 11th century that the regional ruling king stepped onto land here and gazed upon what he believed to be a lion. He gave this place the name Singapura, which means Lion City. Today’s Lion City is a regional hub of business and the enormous skyscrapers that extend above the old waterway is a testament to the transition from old to new world trade.

Now history and folklore lesson aside, I found the Mer-Lion kind of amusing. It reminded me of the scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life with its continuous flow of “good luck” jettisoning from its mouth. I guess I was just in a disgusting state of mind, but it made me smile nonetheless.

So the sun set on another weekend. New places visited, new tastes discovered, all without having to leave the comfort of this little island. It is a small world and Singapore is even smaller yet, but what it lacks in landmass it is making up for on tropical beauty and diverse flavors.


At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great weekend seeing the area. I love the pics - looks like such a great place. But how's the humidity at this point in the year?

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful pictures; sounds like you are now able to enjoy the sights in your new home land country. Keep the articles and pictures coming.

At 5:47 PM, Blogger David Fosberg said...

JW, humidity is pretty intense here. Coming into work today on the subway I was relieved to see that it was raining. It hadn't done that here in two weeks. Hopefully body will be adjusting to the humidity, but plenty of daily showers is the best way to combat the effects.

At 7:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi i came across your blog accidently but what i read made my singaporeans sometimes we do take for granted the wonderful places we have here and yet we sing high praises about the sites we visit abroad. at times its people like you who make us ponder and appreciate what we have. tks for the enlightment. jm


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