19 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #7 - "Durian and the Flying Cattle Truck"

The last day. We decided to really be adventurous, and set off on the local bus to visit Malaysia. This is on one level very simple, on another very complicated. In the EU we are used to light touch border controls, if any at all. In Singapore the border crossing to the nearest part of Malaysia, Johor Baru, looks like Gormenghast. The bus is full of ordinary people going to shop, Malaysia being cheaper than Singapore, and the exchange rate being favourable. I commented before on the friendliness of the immigration people at Changi Airport, and indeed friendly they were, but they obviously save the rotweillers for the crossing at Woodlands. You have to fill out an exit card, fill in an entry card, sign customs declarations, and then get a new entry visa on the way back from the shops a few hours later. If you drive, you have to fill your car up before leaving Singapore, Malaysia having cheaper petrol. If you don’t have a full tank leaving Singapore you can be fined $500.

We cross a crowded causeway, and enter a city in another country. The Malaysians have built an impressive shopping complex, and this is still Asia with air-con and escalators, but it does actually palpably feel different. Son & Heir and I wander off to try to find something a little more…well, Asian I suppose. We wander down some back streets and see places that are more like they are on the telly, but the heat is oppressive, and the smell of Durian powerful.

I haven’t talked about Durian, but you may already know about them. These are a fruit that smell absolutely hellish. The stink would drop a dragon at a hundred paces, and yet people here absolutely love them. They do in Singapore as well, but there you can…guess what? …yes, be fined for carrying them on the Metro or, I am told, even in a pannier on your bicycle. There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say “How oppressive”, but if you’ve ever been down-wind of one you may well incline to the other party. The smell actually makes me heave.

We stock up on presents to take home, and then have a right faff getting back into Singapore. That would have looked rather stupid, missing the plane because we got stuck in Malaysia. We eventually get back in. Just as well because we have one more thing we want to do before leaving the country. We go on the Singapore flyer. This is a bigger wheel than the London Eye, and the views are fabulous. It really shows the scale of Singapore’s achievements in just 44 years. It’s an astonishing sight, looking out over a staggering number of ships in the harbour, an unbelievable skyline, and the signs of new building everywhere. This is a country, and a city, with incredible energy. S&H compares the Singapore skyline to London. Well, in fact there is no comparison. Canary Wharf? The Gherkin? They’d be lost here. This place is buzzing in a way that few places in Europe do, or indeed ever have done.

The trip home is initially hellish. Changi airport is bewailing the fact that it has slipped to 3rd in the world’s rankings. All I can say is, the others must be horrendous. Certainly check in is very slick, but then we sit at the gate for ages, there is no information, security staff turn up then go away again, the screening is slow, they only have one scanner working, you can’t take water through the checks, but then there’s nowhere to get a drink on the other side, (or indeed anything else), the whole thing is rather poor. The flight then from Singapore to Dubai is awful. One of the most unpleasant I have ever had. We are in a Boeing 777, known to some as the Flying Cattle Truck. Well, no, only known to me really, but it SHOULD be called that . We’re shoehorned into the plane, worse than Ryanair, and it’ s a seven hour flight. Some people have been on since Australia. The plane sits ten across, and there’s no room. Fortunately I am sitting next to a very nice woman, and the two of us are quite tolerant, but S&H is not so lucky, and he has a hell of a time. There is nowhere to put your legs, or to stretch them. The seating arrangements on the plane are an invitation to Deep Vein Thrombosis. The flight from Dubai to Newcastle is fine. We’re on an Airbus. It seats eight across. There’s room for everyone.

The same airline runs the awful flight from Singapore to Dubai and the good one from Dubai home. What’s the difference? The plane I suppose. I should also say that the food is chronic and the coffee undrinkable even in emergency, but this airline is by no means unique in that respect.Having flown out over Iraq we flew back over Iran. All in all we flew over fourteen countries going to and from.

Arrived back safely in Britain, but…minus my luggage. His trip has been DOOMED. Having said that, it’s also been bloody marvellous. Britain greets us in its inimitable way. Beloved Spouse is not able to meet us at the Airport, and has been unsuccessful in finding a substitute, so S&H and I trudge to the Metro, to find 1) the ticket machine only takes coins 2) the change machine is broken 3) there is no other way of buying a ticket 4) none of this information is available before you walk all the way to the Metro station 5) there is nothing for it but to walk all the way back to the Airport to get change. Imagine a foreign visitor arriving into Newcastle International and trying to find a simple Metro ride into town. Contrast that with Singapore, where everything works. It’s actually disgraceful.

Anyway, back in the bosom of the family, except that their presents are in my missing suitcase, which perhaps mitigates the welcome slightly. Tomorrow I’ll try to come to some sorts of conclusions, but let me just say, it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in years.

Ronan Paterson, the e-bulletin subscriber who won our Singapore Arts Festival competition, is currently sending through regular updates from Singapore on his Festival adventures.

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