Nine Days in Singapore

The flight from Bali to Singapore takes only slightly more than two hours. There is no time difference hopping from one to the other, but that’s where any similarities end…

From the moment I stepped off the plane at Changi Airport, the sights and scents felt almost new: I was accosted by air conditioning; blinded by the squeaky-clean granite floors; tempted by aromas emanating from restaurants serving food I’ve not eaten in months; greeted with English signs everywhere.

On the MRT (subway), all eyes are affixed to iPhones (in Arabic and Chinese script among other languages), iPads, Blackberries, Bluetooths and a variety of knock-offs. But residents of this city-state are notoriously enamored of brand names, so you can’t take more than a few steps without seeing Polo shirts, Gucci glasses, Louis Vuitton handbags – oh, how the women of Singapore love their handbags! Students tote briefcases, textbooks and manuals with titles such as Biological Models of Management.

Why Singapore? The ubiquitous visa-run of course. Most foreigners living in Bali hire a visa agent, leaving the paperwork and run-arounds in the hands of a capable and seasoned professional. But it also comes at a high cost. Nobody I knew had applied for a visa at the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore themselves. Well why not, I thought, and decided to find out for myself. Would have been easy-peasy.. if only I’d had the right letter in handl Instead, I was sent off to purchase a flight ticket (confirmation of my intention – ha – to leave Indonesia in two months’ time) and return to apply for a different visa. Time was running short, I had to find a nearby internet office or café to make it back to the embassy in time.

Then – eureka! – I spied the name of a well-known hotel chain mounted on a wall a block away. I walked in, located the business centre, bought and printed the ticket – all at no charge – and hurried back to the embassy. If you’re going to buy the cheapest ticket possible for a flight you are not going to take…you might as well do it in style: Thank you, St. Regis Hotel.

Once my application was submitted, I was free to explore until I had to return a few days later to retrieve my passport. I pulled an apple out of my bag as I walked down the street – and promptly froze on the spot, looking down at the apple. What, I wondered, are the rules for eating an apple in public? Legal or not? Will I be caught on camera? Fined? Deported?

I quickly tried to scan my memory for Singaporean-style taboos: No smoking. No flammable materials. No eating and drinking (but only on the MRT?). No jaywalking. No gum. No drugs. No durians (oh, the poor Balinese, surely they would take offense to this one!) I couldn’t conjure up a pictorial symbol of an apple with a diagonal red stripe over it; but still, with so many things verboten in this country, why take my chances? I placed the apple back into my bag.

So much to do: A recent movie release in a real theater – with all-too-real-and-chilly A/C. Taking in the sights and smells of Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, in Little India. A visit (or two) to the renowned Mustafa Centre, Singapore’s epicenter of round-the-clock, rock-bottom-priced shopping. The Botanic Garden, including the Orchid, Evolution and Healing Gardens within. The post office. The supermarket. Buying toiletries that are either unavailable or much too pricey in Bali. Museums – ahhhh… The Singapore Writers’ Festival.

An afternoon with Wei, shopping for laptop and camera, topped off with a smorgasbord of sushi. Sitting in on Aparna and Dancy’s (two friends, both of Indian descent) Mandarin class. Eating Kashmiri food with Aparna. Being fed daily South Indian treats by Dancy’s mother – who even packed a few pineapples in her bags, lugging them all the way from her garden in Kerala.

Mission was accomplished, it was time to leave: I had a valid visa in hand… or so I thought.

Disembarking in Denpasar (Bali), I’m accosted by humidity, stuffed buses shuttling passengers to the main terminal, porters already eyeing you before you’ve had a chance to retrieve luggage. But only the next morning, did I suddenly realize that I’d been rendered persona non grata by the immigration clerk whom I had entrusted with my passport – and who, with one fell swoop, overtaken perhaps by a sudden and fleeting moment of utter idiocy, defaced my perfectly new and valid, two-month visa with a bright green “USED” stamp, effectively and instantly rendering it invalid. Ahh… I thought: Welcome Back to Bali.

Thus began My Life in Ubud, Part II.

Moving house the same night as my arrival; to Ngurah’s place, for lack of a name and sign for this work-in-progress guesthouse. Still in Tebesaya, still on Jalan Sukma. Across the street from Family Guesthouse. Minus the sunrise and moon glow. Minus Nyoman and her family, my pint-sized Bahasa-language teacher (Ayu) and the frangipani trees growing outside my room. Here I’m facing the jungle. With new sounds. A different chorus of roosters – strangely many with voices just barely croaking, possibly from old age. Being closer to the ground means more spiders, cockroaches, ants, cecaks and tokeks (small and large-sized geckos) – who love to piss ‘n poo from the rafters above me at any time of day or night…

Some things have changed, some have stayed the same. Ibu Dayu is no longer out early in the morning, serving the most delicious bubur to her neighbors – including me. Perhaps she still grieves over the recent death of a relative. Rai, on the lookout always from his warung, Yummy Yummy, waves as I walk by. I promise to stop by and catch up soon. Manis hasn’t returned yet from Kintamani where her brother Komang was married over the weekend. I’ve only seen Bagus briefly, sitting as always inside his warung, these days wondering if the four-floor medical clinic under construction across the street will be good or bad for business.

Ubud’s main road is, as always, under some semblance of construction. Never mind the dust, the rocky terrain.. the tourist buses ply through unhindered, sending large clouds of smoke and pebbles into the faces of passersby. The village of Padang Tegal is beginning to celebrate its temple ceremony. People are decked out in their finest, women carrying towers of colorful offerings on their heads. Tourists stop, stare and snap away. I stand and watch the preliminary procession with Karma, outside his yoga clothing store on Hanoman St. A long-awaited massage; then the rain begins to pour and we end up taking experimental photos on my terrace with lights and tripod, followed by handstands (Kadek) and an attempt at headstands (me).

The dogs on my street seem to still remember me – or my scent; the neighbors smile, wave, greet me in the morning with the usual selamat pagi. Ary has closed down his warung, he’s put it up for rent, because (he tells me) his heart is weak, and his doctor says he can’t continue to work any longer. A few new warungs have popped up down the street; one with a poster that reads HEALTY FOOD, making me wonder why they didn’t bother asking an English-speaking person to proofread their text.

The sidewalks are still sloping, slanting and full of broken grating and holes. There’s no air conditioning in any place that I frequent. There’s also durian everywhere. All sorts of smells, known and unknown matter, permeate the air, most of which would surely not pass muster under Singapore’s tough laws.

Some days I think it would be nice to live where everything is clean and neat and organized and mostly accessible. Where, because of the spotless floors and sidewalks, barefooted monks can perambulate from morning to night without a care in the world. Where the western-type mentality and common sense is (to some extent) not entirely dissimilar to mine. Where there are norms and laws that people follow, creating a semblance of peace, cleanliness and order. But then, I think of all the people who live in their little pods, plugged into something or other, unplugged from the people who sit and stand next to them.

And then, I come back to Ubud and realize that, for good or bad, people may do what they want, drive and park and idle without limits, behave with no common sense and little regard as to consequences. But here people are connected to each other; they notice what goes on all around them – even when you’d rather they didn’t. So when a guy in sarong and udeng is seen fruitlessly trying to catch his rooster that’s escaped off the motorbike, it’s only natural that a stranger on a bike will notice, slow down, hop off his bike and capture the errant creature. Balinese men may value their bikes, their cell phones, their families and ceremonies; but they are bound in brotherhood by an unspoken pride – about their um… cockfighting.

Being back in Bali doesn’t kindle regret for leaving Singapore or yearning for more; it’s a good enough place to get my first-world fix whenever imigrasi demands that I pad their coffers yet again but it lacks the healing energy that flourishes in abundance, seeps through pores, makes recovery a real possibility, on this island. The humidity, corruption, slanting sidewalks, burning trash, broken bridges and sidewalks aside, I breathe in the certainty that I am, at least for now, back in the place I call home.

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