After another super exotic breakfast of coffee and toast, we started our day on the metro to avoid change (I would say that it’s the place where we’ve spent the most time this week overall). Destination: Chinatown, that as its own name indicates is a cute Chinese city but in Singapore.
I think that I should explain a curious thing here (at least for me, and I’m in command): The Singaporean identity is a very recent concept, for centuries Singapore has been and it continues to be a commercial port, first for goods and now tourists and money. Visitors and business people from many other parts of the continent (and beyond) have established themselves within it, which means that Singaporean society is an amalgam of peoples, cultures, languages and religions. Although in our day to day time there I’ve always had the sensation of homogeneity, of integration and interaction between them all, the truth is that the city was divided by a guy called Raffles (an ancient governor, if you’d like more info there’s Google or DuckDuckGo) into neighbourhoods with a specific population assigned: Chinese people in Chinatown, Indians in Little India (who would have thought) and Malaysians in Kampong Glam. So there we are, they’re ghettos like we’re used to but structured by the government instead of naturally formed from roots of racism and alienation to what is different. And as I say, it seems to work better because as I was telling you a paragraph ago, we went to Chinatown and the sense of integration was plain: despite trying to be a clear Chinese neighbourhood – the architecture, the businesses, the language of the signs and posters, the shops of traditional Chinese medicine with shop fronts straight out of Diagon Alley (a wink to the nerds), the features of the population, etc – in the same street you can find a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Buddhist temple. And to conclude, in our first excursion to the neighbourhood we ran into a hawker centre that served not only Chinese food (although it was in the majority) but also had places for Muslim or Malaysian food.
Oh oh… I see that I’m going to start waffling again (again, as if I’ve ever stopped). But the thing is I have to explain the concept of Hawker Centre. They’re half-open spaces (normally there are marquees without walls) with many, many, many little places for food and drink (there are juices of all the colours of the rainbow and more!) super cheap, especially in Singaporean terms, where the restaurants don’t exactly charge £7 for the menu of the day. However, in the hawker centres, an enormous plate with a tropical smoothie will cost you peanuts (or if anybody is looking for information a tiny bit more precise, between 2 and 6 pounds). That morning we passed the centre by because we’d already had breakfast but for the rest of the trip they suited us really very well.
After a little walk around the neighbourhood with my jaw hanging open (I had never left Europe before and felt gob-smacked by everything), we entered a Hindu temple called… one moment please, I’m going to consult Saint Google for the name as it doesn’t leap to mind right now… ah, yes, that, the Sri Mariamman. How could I forget…
The first thing we had to do when we entered was take off our shoes and burn the soles of our feet on the burning pavement (bless my socks, bursting with cotton, for protecting me from the fire and dirt of the ground!) and wrap ourselves in a sarong (that seemed to be a big cloth). In many temples the sarong is only for women, because it seems our knees are more offensive to the gods. With them shaven and toned like they were that day… sigh. It seems that in this temple they sometimes celebrate something (I’m not very sure what) based on walking over embers, and I’ve never been happier to belong to a culture that celebrates things with champagne, cake and confetti. Although in truth the thing with the embers probably isn’t very different from walking barefoot on this hellish ground.
The temple was very different from any other that I’ve visited before: a semi-open building covered with brightly coloured sculptures. If you can’t clearly picture them despite my mature and elegant description, there are photos below, in-case any details have escaped me.
The funniest thing is that we went looking for a Buddhist temple but Google brought us here and it took us a little while or more than is acceptable to notice that this wasn’t a Buddhist temple, but a Hindu one. The happy ending is that with our incredible capacity for observation and after crossing a few Vishnus and Ramas our brains clicked… but listen, we were very happy to have made a mistake and ended up there.
In the end we found the temple a few steps further along and we once again completed the rituals that etiquette demanded, which were similar: remove hats and cover those obscene knees once more, that had been going around provoking some dark desire. Although in my case the darkness is wishful thinking.
Despite being a very recent temple (2007) the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (they like it…) is a point of pilgrimage due to a crucial detail that you’ll have already guessed from the clue in the name: they have a tooth from Buddha. When Siddharta, the first Buddha, managed to reach Nirvana and break his cycle of reincarnation and find true death (wink to nerds: like in True Blood), his followers shared out the remains of his burnt corpse, that for some strange but surely logical reason was divided into 28,000 pieces of essence, and a tooth. Said temple not only has thirty displays of this essence but also… the tooth! And, my god, if the tooth fairy (in Spanish ‘el Ratoncito Perez’, a little mouse) had made a little effort and had given me for each one of my teeth half of the gold that has been dedicated to that one I wouldn’t have to work again not just in this life but in any of my future reincarnations.
The temple of the tooth consists of five impressive floors that contain thousands of mini-Buddhas, very interesting sculptures, a little museum, an enormous cylinder for people to cheat when saying prayers (each time that you turn it it’s as if you’d said a verse but without speaking; where I come from that’s cheating, and unnecessary exercise), a mountain of flowery and fruity offerings, a meditation space and, of course, the relics. Besides, we had the good luck to see a little piece of Buddhist ceremony with its chants, its incense and its orange monks. Curious to see but since I’m so unspiritual it gave me the sensation that there was something that didn’t fit and that like all good unions of tourism and religion, the temple saves more money than souls.
In a rest from the temple (I remind you it was five floors), we went to eat at one of the little neighbourhood streets, with thousands of little shops and stalls and another hawker centre in the middle of the street. Another good thing about those places is that each of you can go to a different stall but then you can eat together at the same table. I would love to remember everything that I have eaten and drunk those days because I think I’ve only repeated a meal once. That day we had char sui pork, don’tknowwhat beef, lime juice, chestnut water and a delicious dessert whose name I can’t remember and whose content I was never sure about. With the passage of time I’ve learnt that one of the ingredients (soursop) is a first cousin of the custard apples that they grow in Motril but that’s all I know. Our last experience before leaving Chinatown was trying a little spoon of Durian ice-cream, and I think that the flavour is still coming back up… really I don’t know what was going on in the mind of the first person that smelt that and yet still went closer to bite it…
We left Chinatown sticky and sweaty, that together with Monica’s hair in Hawaii (if you don’t understand you’re leaving it late to watch Friends) seems to be the natural state of living beings in this climate, so we went to have a little shower before continuing with our plan. First, dinner in another hawker centre that contrasted incredibly with the mega skyscrapers that surrounded us. Menu: Dragon fruit juice, melon juice and rice with vegetables and cashew sauce. Yum yum. Second, a walk to Merlion park passing by some of the most sumptuous hotels of the city. Everything around you is absolutely enormous, majestic and reeking of money until you arrive to the Merlion and you realise that the name ‘park’ is a bit much… it’s a little triangle of asphalt with stairs to the marina and a white fountain in the form of a lion. It seems that the lion being a symbol of the city is due to Singapore meaning something like ‘the place of the lion’ and somebody important many centuries ago thought that he had seen a lion. It’s thought it was really a tiger, basically because lions have never inhabited this area and because if you see the way the ‘lion’ was originally drawn you’ll realise they’d never seen one in their life…
And with that fun fact our second day in Singapore is finished. Fade to black and we go to bed.
P.S. All of the photos are horrible because they have too much light, but that’s what there is…