As a Canadian, I’m always going to root for the underdog. On a map of the world, Singapore looks like little more than Malaysia’s toenail, so I probably should have felt some solidarity for this little sovereign nation all along. Alas, I can’t honestly say that before we left on our trip (and Chris sent me a sternly worded email that I clearly deserved) that I realized Singapore was a bona fide independent country in its own right. I guess I can consider it divine justice for my ignorance every time someone on our travels insists that “Canada is pretty much part of the United States”. My apologies, Singapore, and also: I get it. You’re your own country, and a pretty kick ass one at that.
For such a small country, Singapore offers an astounding number of ways to enter and exit the country; if traveling to neighboring Malaysia, you can fly, drive a car, take a train, take a ferry boat, take a private bus, take a public bus, or even walk! Having taken our fair share of flights since arriving in Asia (the only country we hadn’t flown into thus far was China) and with a little money left on our transit cards, we decided to try for our cheapest international travel day to date and entered Malaysia using nothing but public transportation.
Some eating experiences are transcendental, elevating the art of food to a higher plane, but good food doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, on our travels our most satisfying meals aren’t the high falutin ones with slices of lemon in our water glasses or multiple forks of varying sizes to navigate. Instead, I’ve been all about the no-frills meals that make me feel down-right primitive.
And nothing knocks me a couple of notches down the evolutionary chain more than when I’m attacking a plate full of crab.
“If you’re going to begin a show in Singapore, it should be in a Hawker Center—in fact, in my opinion, it should be in this [Maxwell Food Centre] hawker center—and you should probably begin with the most beloved dish in Singapore, chicken rice.” – Anthony Bourdain
When it comes to listing Asia’s top food destinations, most travelers are quick to name Thailand. It’s a hard choice to argue with, but when Tony & I were plotting our trip, there were two other destinations we honed in on with the intention of simply stuffing ourselves silly: Hong Kong & Singapore.
Prior to becoming a diver, there were few things in life I loved more than visiting an aquarium. I’ve written extensively on this site about my love of the water in general, as well as my love for aquariums in particular, but part of me wondered whether—having finally experienced the wonder of the aquatic world without reinforced panes of glass between it and me—my love affair with aquariums might wane.
There comes a time during every traveler’s foray through Asia when one is eventually confronted with Durian. Travel through this continent for any length of time and sooner or later, you’ll turn a corner and smell something so fetid and foul it will nearly knock you off your feet. You get used to the assault on the senses (particularly olfactory) that travel in Asia provides, but the odor that wafts about when durian is in the vicinity must surely be considered a crime against humanity.
It seems incredibly shortsighted now, but back when Tony & I were planning this trip, we were so focused on the places we would visit and the sights we would see that we gave no thought to the people we might meet and the ways they would change our journey. Looking back, I find it so hard to believe that we could have neglected this aspect of travel, a facet that I have now come to view as critical and the true motivating factor that keeps us going. In the end, it has never been the monuments or the beaches or even the food, that ultimately determines how much we fall head over heels for a country (though those things certainly play some role), but the people we have met and connected with while there.
Throughout the course of our trip, we have focused more on immersing ourselves as deeply as possible in the local culture of wherever we happen to find ourselves rather than bopping around obvious attractions that seem geared more toward pleasure-seeking holiday makers and vacation takers. We don’t have a hardline policy that eschews popular, well-known activities, it’s just that I have found that I tend to learn the most about the world by simply being out in it, wandering the streets and observing the locals living their lives, than I do when we seek out museums and similar diversions. I suppose I simply like my history alive, watching the eddy of time culminate in whatever is unfolding before my eyes in the here and now.
If there’s one lesson that traveling has taught me over and over again, it’s that life is generally more fun, more interesting, when we say “yes” rather than “no”. Saying yes we risk the unknown and open up ourselves to the possibility of being surprised, to having our boundaries expanded and our points of view changed. Maybe it’s because, on the verge of saying no, our expectations for the experience are lower, or maybe it’s because opening ourselves up to “yes” primes us for other great things that are headed our way. All I know is that it has been exceedingly rare during this trip that I have wished I had turned an opportunity down.
From 10¢ glasses of local drafts sipped on tiny stools on street corners in Vietnam to $2 1.5L pitchers of ice cold lager in Cambodia, Asia has developed something of a reputation amongst budget-conscious travelers who enjoy a tipple or two. By and large, Asia’s reputation as the land of low-cost liquor is well-earned, but there are a few places where booze will break the bank, Singapore being chief among them. Though you can stuff yourself for a pittance in the Lion City, washing down your meal with an adult beverage will see you hemorrhaging money at a worrying pace.
Maybe I’m lucky, but despite what anyone tries to tell you, I haven’t found the notion that “marriage changes everything” to be true. If Tony’s and my relationship has changed in the four years we’ve been married (and surely it has), I credit that more to simply having been in the trenches with one another that much longer than I do to a piece of paper. If anything has caused the most upheaval in our relationship, it’s undoubtedly been uprooting our life to travel long-term: When we left on this trip, neither Tony nor I once doubted that we would love our new lifestyle, and while I don’t think we were wrong, it has definitely taken us time to get to this point.
One of the things I struggled with most when I first moved to Nashville was how white-washed the city was. Coming from one of the world’s multicultural epicenters, Toronto, I certainly felt for a long time like I had fallen into a bit of a cultural void. I longed to be in a place where it was possible to have dim sum on the weekends and my choice in Indian restaurants was more extensive than “the vegetarian place or the place with meat”, but it was about more than food, too. As I did, Nashville grew and changed a lot while I was living there (it has FOUR Indian restaurants now!), but not once did I see posters around town heralding upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations, or warning that West End Ave would be shut down that weekend for Caribana, or even—least threatening of all— a “Taste of Little Italy” festival. Of course, the key behind these kinds of celebrations is the people and populations they represent, and so while Nashville’s entertainment and events schedule may have seemed a little drab and one-note due to omissions of this sort, this merely reflects the absences in the city’s demographics. I didn’t necessarily notice this consciously while I was in Nashville, but some part of me certainly processed and took note of that loss.
“Next time, use a blue pen or a black pen.”
We’ve already been through five of these checkpoints in as many months and by far the stentorian greeting that awaits me at immigration in Singapore is the least welcoming of any place we’ve been. Far from a warm welcome, I think I’ve just been issued a warning, and a frigid one at that.