02.12.2014 - 02.12.2014
The midnight line passes without event, tucked up as I am on a meagre row of benches that house a dozy bunch of road warriors and backpack battalions. The inside of HKG is essentially devoid of activity, a faintly glittering shell that evokes the frozen inside of a long-lost Christmas cracker. To my right a strange chain gain of almost ten men struggle with cranes and other tools of medium industry to erect a few simple banners. A union job if ever there was one, it takes an inordinate amount of time and pratfalls to get a few strips loosely hung, seemingly unnoticed by most of my vegetative companions. One of the few watering holes open, 7-11 has gifted me a bottle of cold green-tea water that takes the bite off a few hours spent fruitlessly, more than one MRT stop away from sleep but unable to move further into the promised land of Plaza Lounges without a check-in crew or boarding pass at hand. The monitors give warning that already the flight is one hour delayed, and true to market-share, the Scoot counter opens half an hour late to compensate, at this point encircled by the few and the brave.
By about 0600, my papers in order, I shuffle through security and go in search of the solace of a quiet space, a snotty desire to distance myself from a herd which in truth does not exist at this unspeakable hour. I follow my aspirations to the Cathay Pacific Sky Lounge, blearily aware that access is a Platinum perk that has been some time axed, but ever hopeful. The picture of early morning self possession that moves elegantly to intercept me is quick and tightly pleasant, dismissing me with a poised diffidence that the Air China girls could only hope to touch. Back down I go to the lower gate level, finding the more egalitarian Plaza Premium lounge. It is essentially bare and pleasingly dim, a few business types slumped in club chairs, a pair of pilots to my left who seem to be partaking of pre-flight aperitifs. I settle on soy milk and a thimbleful of everything on offer: high fibre cereal, noodles, and congee. As I nibble, a breakfast rush begins to appear, decidedly lowering the tone. Someone walks away from a fridge with soda in hand and the door wide open, children are folded into the mixture with predictable results and I scoot off to let the morning market get into full swing. The flight to Singapore promises to be packed, a crowd already massing by the time I arrive with two chargers and a dream. I join the queue fashionably late and brimming with 220 voltage, finally boarded into an aisle seat.
Budget carrier that it is, we are presented with a three-four-three seat configuration per row, my two side neighbours a pair of indeterminate relationship, her mostly coughing as he sleeps smashed against the window like a runaway sloth. Across the aisle the next most proximal passenger also has what appears to be a case of whopping cough, unhelped by the lack of complimentary anything, making me almost charitable enough to buy him a bottle of ebola enriched mineral water for the journey. Not yet brave enough to pull on a face mask I grimace and bear it, nodding in and out of consciousness over the uneventful three and a half hour flight. Circling down on Singapore I can't help but peer obtrusively over the plausible couple to gaze at the sunny tropical expanse. Not seeing the city centre, I am taken aback at all the luminous shades of green and yellow and eager to make contact with tarmac. Immediately out of the plane the air in the skyway is like a backdraft, not nearly so shocking in heat as it is in sweetness. The airport is friendly and thoughtful, a tempting glimpse of palm trees visible through the bottom floor windows as I head for the shuttle desk to procure a wallet-friendly ride share. It is a simple procedure, and within fifteen minutes I am in a shuttle bus with three more passengers and two more hotels, a brisk and cheap option I maximize glued to the window.
The drive is gorgeous, tropical fauna opening into a gleaming metropolis, full of marvellous architecture on high with low lying boroughs in Portugese and Arabic styles among others. My hotel is first, a charitable welcome and a quick ride to the fourth and top floor, where I find a perfect little room. Opening the doors brings in a gust of floral air, not at all the drinking-quality intake I expected from such a densely populated nation. The deck houses a comfortable nesting chair where I wilt, not before spying over to my left where my room borders the tempting pool.
Firing back a bevy of texts with my local connection Joab, we agree that we will link up after he finishes a shift at his dad's engineering firm, and I regain a few hours of the large sleep deficit I'm running. I set an alarm, and spark out on the sun parched bed listening with half intent to the alluring sounds of the vaguely Arabic/Indian district I am housed in. Meeting set at the local subway stop for 7:30, I find the world coming back into view with a sticky sense of dread and cotton-wool mouth. Glancing at the clock I see it has gone 8:05, and three texts await from my new now-stranded friend. I jump on to chat and unleash a litany of apologies, tearing around and side-eyeing my new gilt tablet which has conspicuously not sounded a single alarm.
Joab is good natured as ever and quick to laugh it off when we finally link up at the Bugis MRT stop off nearly fourty-five minutes later. He buys me my first metro ticket, a reloadable card similar in structure to Hong Kong's Octopus, though smaller in reach. We bound downstairs to catch the train to City Hall where we cross tracks and make for our final call at the ION Mall. It is the typical Asian spire of marble and gold, perhaps a bit more restrained but nonetheless hitting all the main designer high points with some very plush dining options interspersed. It takes us a while to get sorted out in search of Paradise Dynasty where I am dead set on sampling their famous rainbow selection of xiao long bao, a tasting menu of steamed and soupy delight. We find a restaurant at the top, a likely locale with the moniker Paradise where we are seated in a lovely dining hall done in a traditional upscale Chinese milieu. Only when the menu comes does it become clear we are in the wrong paradise, and we excuse ourselves quickly, whirring around the rest of the upper promenade to find that our Paradise has closed just ten minutes previous. Mitigating the dream to another day, we set out to find some other dim sum delights, his friends texting him a promising suggestion.
It takes a good ten minutes just to find a way out from under all the marble and escalators before we are back headed street-side to a restaurant that seems more word of mouth than bricks and mortar. Taking a few sharp angles we find that the hole in the wall in question is plugged, this apparently their one day off per week. Running into overtime and hungry, Joab suggests an open air dining market with stalls of all different cuisines and flairs. I am essentially game, but on walking into the arcade from the nearly 30 degree night air and finding it not a degree less, I bashfully ask if we can find somewhere with at least a fan in sight. Joab laughs understanding as I play the Canadian card unashamedly, and we make directly across the street to a promising cafeteria I had already clocked, serving mostly a mixture of Indian and Singaporean fusion with mass appeal. No frills adorn the deck chairs and grotty tile but it is no detriment to the tasty looking offerings that steam on patio furniture between late office workers and casual diners. I opt for Mee Hoon Goreng, a gorgeous plate piled with noodles, protein and thick sweet sauce, while Joab grabs a huge helping of minced lamb in a Mutabak, traditional middle eastern flatbread dining at its best. He also downs a huge chocolate shake drink to beat the heat while I have a papaya drink swimming with fresh chunks of fruit. Deciding the large portions are not copious enough he also puts in for an order of Roti John, thick soft bread heated with spicy meat and veg inside and swirled in spicy oil drippings. Even in the sweltering heat I can't get enough of all three dishes, and we swap and stuff merrily, going back only to quench the fires with a second shake for him and iced green tea for me. The bill is small, the service warm, and I leave in a partially chile-induced glow at the incredible food options that literally spill out into every small street we come across.
I am absolutely stuffed, but we continue on with the promise of an amazing durian dessert, and by the time we have walked and chatted for close to another half hour I have made some room and learned much about Singapore and it's idiosyncratic/technocratic ways. Just to trash my idea of the super-strict state we jay-walk with abandon and even dare to discard gum wantonly, albeit in the dark. I feel enriched if still bloated by the time we hit the late night dessert cafe, not even realizing it is after midnight when we sit down to a huge bowl of fresh durian fruit served mashed and chilled in a soup pulsating with refreshing sago pearls. Joab lets me have the best of it, an amazing quencher swimming with sweet stinking pulp.
A Portrait of Durian, Great
Underground transit trussed up for the night we walk back to my hotel, the soupiness of the air achieving a fearful symmetry to my saturated digestive tract, unwitnessed in the face of Singapore's charms. I think only now to ask where Joab lives, an apartment with his family that is far flung out by the airport, and feel a twinge of guilt at keeping him out late and at the mercy of a taxi. He seems totally unconcerned even as he describes the extra fares that get piled on past twelve, leaving with a warm goodbye and my assurance of picking up some tab tomorrow in recompense. Pouring myself into the chilled lobby of Santa Grand Bugis is like a cryogenic mud wrap, and I feel revamped before I even hit that strata of the fourth floor. Sliding the balcony door closed soundlessly after a fashion, my room light vanishes beyond the starry haze of city central, perfect and immaterial.