Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The rainy season

Winter in Singapore is hot. Surprised anyone? Thought not. It's just as hot as summertime, the only difference is that the rain comes down. It's monsoon season, as Orwell or Kipling would say.

There are two seasons, winter and summer: either hot and humid or hot, wet and humid.  Even as we speak the rain is coming down in torrents and the thunder is cracking. It arrives without warning and it's very easy for an ill prepared expat to be caught out.

You often see Singaporeans carrying an open umbrella above them, protecting them from the sun as often as from the rain. It's strange how quickly you adjust to trying to keep out of the sun, finding a spot of shade to wait in while the traffic lights changes or choosing the table in the shade.

I got completely drenched in one such a downpour last Saturday. Quite often of a Saturday morning we go down to the lagoon on the East Coast Park and go wakeboarding. East Coast Park? Lagoon? Wakeboarding? Let me explain....

The East Coast park is a stretch of organised greenery, not far from where we live, that boarders the sea. There are cycle tracks neatly marked with bicycles and pedestrian footpaths running alongside the cycle tracks neatly marked with large, yellow footprints.

There are barbecue areas which can be reserved by contacting the correct department of local government. You also have to fill in the appropriate paperwork with the appropriate officials if you want to pitch your tent up there for the night.

Lots of young people do this as a way of getting some privacy from their parents with their boyfriend or girlfriend. This is partly because people here tend to live at home with their parents much longer than is usual in the UK (except for some actors and musicians of course still found in their parents homes in the UK well into their.... well let's not investigate that one too much eh?) The other reason that people live at home longer  here is (I am reliably informed) so that they can buy designer handbags. Shopping is a kind of religion here.

The lagoon is a big pond, or small lake, man made from sea water. Around it there has been constructed a kind of pulley system like an enormous washing line. Attached to it there are long lines with handles on the end. Wakeboarding is when you take hold of one of these handles and are pulled around the lagoon or washing line on a board. Sort of like snowboarding, but on the water. Or water skiing.

For those who don't fall off it looks like enormous fun, skimming around the water nonchalantly holding onto the handle, sometimes one handed. Often making little jumps either off the geometric shapes which poke out of the water at various intervals all around the lagoon, or just when the mood takes them. It all looks very impressive.

I had slight trepidations beforehand. When I think of seawater I have a lot of memories of teeth-clenchingly cold swims on childhood summer holidays. My family, while distinctly un-athletic, are resolute swimmers in the sea, the temperature being a trivial side issue.

Imagine my delight when, on immediately falling off, I plunged into lovely warm, salty water. This, I thought, is what living in Singapore is all about. And then I fell off again. And then again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

In fact I have been about four times now and while the DFP is smoothly circling the pool I am still falling off. And always within the first few feet.

The problem is, or rather my problem is, that the initial pull on the handle is extremely fast. The speed goes from 0km to 28km in about two seconds. So starting for anyone does involve quite a lot of falling off, but I have definitely done more than my fair share.

The skateboarder/surfer types, usually men, who frequent the place have started to take pity on me. They see me falling in over and over and have started to give me tips. 'You need to keep the tip of the board out of the water' they say. 'You're standing up too quickly, keep your legs bent', 'Try leaning back a bit more'. All good advice and much appreciated and sometimes I make a bit of progress. (At one point one of the guys was actually holding onto the back of my life-jacket as I started to stop me tipping forwards). But not enough progress to get me beyond the first mark.

These skateboarder/surfers are an interesting breed. Very friendly and easy going as you might expect. You hear them talking about their injuries, comparing notes on how many times they've broken different bones. Lots of them wear knee guards and I'm never sure whether its to protect against new injuries or support old ones.

I overheard one man talking cheerfully about going snowboarding and having his board smash into the back of  his head the week before his wedding. 'They stitched me up and I was all right on the day' he said. 'What did your wife think?' someone asked. 'Oh' he said 'she understands'.

Anyhow, last Saturday I'd had my hour of falling into the water and then we'd had breakfast. As we were about to leave the DFP discovered he had a puncture so I cycled home in the mid day heat, my face blazing red, sweating like a bastard. On the way back with puncture kit, tyre leavers, pump etc. the heavens opened and I got wet all over again. And then the sun came out, as it always does in Singapore and everything was all right.

Saturday, 15 October 2011


Mumbai is a memory. All I have left to remind me of it are some photos (see below) and a slightly dickie stomach. It is a fantastic city. A welcome change from the neat, orderly, tick-boxiness of Singapore.

Mumbai seems to have been crumbling slowly in the heat ever since the British left in '47. There are the remains of colonial days in the moulding forms of the most beautiful buildings everywhere you go. 

How many photos do you usually take on holiday? I'm usually quite a lazy photographer. 30 is a high number on a trip for me. This time I took 115. So often I saw something so beautiful and full of contrasts I had to get my camera out. Not the ordered, architecturally planned, shiny new beauty of Singapore but a long ago shiny and new melting away through lack of maintenance and always strung with washing. And not only in the buildings.

Not an inch of space is wasted. Colour and life are crammed into every corner. Each window you look up to has someone hanging out of it, usually on a mobile phone and of course the obligatory multi-coloured string of washing, like festive bunting. It adds a jaunty verve to the place.

That verve, that energy is what makes Mumbai so appealing despite the poverty. Poverty and prosperity live cheek by jowl. Slums and skyscrapers spring up and are pulled down with equal speed. Life is lived out of doors, probably because there isn't much room at home, so everywhere you go there's a congregation of people and sometimes it feels as though all of them are trying to sell you something.

Well, quite a lot of them are trying to sell you something. You get followed a lot. Now, as a liberal, middle-class westerner I am well aware that I've won the jackpot in the lottery of birth and feel suitably guilty. On the other hand I really don't want to buy any 'scarves, pashminas or handicrafts'. I always feel conflicted when I ignore the cries and walk away but usually this is what you have to do in order to get anywhere. But there is a kind of bravado, showmanship and hope about the people trying to sell you something, or trick you into something, that even while really not wanting to be conned, I liked and respected. 

We went to Juhu beach and had street food from the stalls that flank it one evening. It was Sunday and the whole beach was heaving with life. People were wandering through the dark, the women in brightly coloured saris, children running in and out. Often the baby girls are in beautiful, glittering dresses, sometimes with their huge eyes ringed with kohl, making them even huger, even more striking and beautiful. 

Everywhere people were selling things: candy floss; enormous balloons, pani puri (mouthsized fried, hollow, chickpea pastries filled with crunchy peashoots and tamarind water, utterly delicious), corn on the cob and anything else that might attract a beach wanderer. 

We were approached by an immaculately dressed, rather beautiful girl who I would have guessed at about 14. She had a basket full of carved wooden blocks and henna dye pads. We tried to ignore her and walk on as she pushed her stuff. She followed us down the beach asking the usual hooking questions, 'where are you from?' 'what's your name?' The DFP answered a few and then strictly got rid of her.

Later on as we were coming back we bumped into her again. 'Ah, there you are' she said, as if we were old friends who'd somehow lost each other in the throng and then started chatting to us in the easiest, most self -assured way and in immaculate English. 

It turned out that she was 17, not 14 as I'd guessed. She told us the beach was busy because it was a Sunday night, that she had two brothers and a sister. She said she'd stopped going to school at 12. She asked me if I'd been to India before. I said I had, 'when I was your age'. 'Then you must be about 23', she said. 'You're flattering me' I said. 

And she was. At the end of the conversation I bought some of the wooden printing blocks for far more than they were worth, a willing victim of her charming manipulation. But I was buying them because someone as intelligent and sparky as she is should have every opportunity in the world. Because when I was 17 instead of walking up and down on a beach selling from a basket on a Sunday night I was doing an exchange with Deli Public High school and visiting India as a tourist, paid for by my generous parents. I had every opportunity in the world and though I don't know exactly what her life is like I think I can make a fairly safe bet that she has an awful lot less.

And that's not fair. I can't make it right. I can't address the huge misbalance of wrongness in the world but little gestures are a start. Unless you open yourself a little, when you can, the world will just stay one big slammed shut place.

The DFP laughed at me and said she had known exactly what she was doing. She'd made conversation and then at the end had put a price on the personal exchange, on the fact that we liked her. I think so too. But I don't mind.

So often when you're travelling what you are really buying is interaction with people, a look into their lives. I saw some breathtaking sites. The Buddhist temples carved into rock on Elephanta Island and in the Sanjay Ghandi National Park and they will stay with me for a long time. As will the crumbling glory of Mumbai's architectural past, it's beautiful Art Deco buildings along the seafront, the old Victoria Terminus railway station and the people hanging off the trains as they pull in. 

But I think most of all I'll remember the people: the girl on the beach who should be head of Marketing for some massive corporation with her intelligence and charm; the little boy who ran up to me with a bunch of flowers, a hopeful, cheeky smile and said '5000 Rupees!?' (about £65 - I laughed); the grumpy driver Vjay who completely ignored us when we asked to go somewhere and took us back to the hotel instead; Raj the tour guide with astonishingly little knowledge but snazzy trousers with a silver pinstripe which glinted in the sun and the guard at Elephanta who spoke NO English but took my arm and lead me, very purposefully, around a cave putting my hand on the wall to touch it and into the pools of water.

There's so much I've missed. This could become an opus. But I'm going to leave it there and let you look at the pictures.

 the outside laundry at Dhobi Ghat

Victoria Terminus Station

Lime Soda - fresh lime juice, soda water and either sugar or salt. The perfect drink in the heat.

Wonderfully bosomy goddesses. I so prefer them to the ironed out Christian Virgins.

Buddhist caves carved by monks a long time ago. (When exactly unclear from Raj).

Juhu Beach.

Monday, 3 October 2011


Here are some photos which I've been meaning to put up for a while. The first four are of our weekend in Phuket. You can see the drips of rain in the first but it does not give a true impression of the torrent of rain.

Above is the view from a cafe we sheltered in

Here is the DFP swimming in a waterfall

A truck drove into the post holding the power cables for our hotels and the others down the road we were staying in and we were plunged into darkness for the evening. Lots of local people came to watch as they worked deep into the night to try and get it up again while scooters drove over or around the fallen power lines, including ours.

Back in Singapore above a lovely nearby shop house and below a deity.

This is the temple down our road where all sorts of exciting things go on. A rehearsal for a Chinese opera seemed to be taking place and I wandered over to have a closer look but when I did a man came and smiled sweetly, bowed down hands clasped and then shut the doors. Religion eh? I thought it was supposed to be welcoming and doors open. But perhaps not when something is rehearsing and not ready for it's audience yet. That I can understand.