My brother’s flat is on the 19th storey. When you are standing on the balcony, the city is directly in front of you, clusters of soaring skyscrapers that are sometimes crystal clear then, suddenly, submerged in a thick, hot fog. The sky is never the same. You can see the sun pushing through gold-shot clouds in the morning. At nightfall, the light is pink and softer. When it is about to rain, the clouds are as angry as the crashing thunder.
Singapore is a funny place. I have been trying to explore it in the same way as I would Paris or Rome or any other new city: walk the streets until it makes sense. This is impossible. The city is as vertical as it is horizontal. The districts are intersected with highways and it is too hot to get very far. The balance between East and West, old and new, the artificial and the natural, is both familiar and deeply confusing –
I am left, instead, with pieces of a city.
In Chinatown, there are so many lanterns that London’s version seems modest. The shops spill onto the streets, even after nightfall, and you can buy anything from globe-spinning Buddha’s to tailor-made silk suits. Alongside the shops are tables, filled with Tiger-drinking chopstick-happy diners. There is nothing mean or half-hearted about their Char Sui buns. Behind the market, the temple is so differently and brightly ornate that it has left me wondering what it feels like to be part of something so vibrant.
In the city, the glass buildings are tagged with names that I recognise. They are new and shiny and shoot straight up. It somehow doesn’t feel claustrophobic. Walking the sparkingly clean streets or waiting with the suited workers for the pedestrian lights to start pulsing makes you realise what it would be like to live in designed efficiency. Trains and buses are scarily prompt. Boats float in the air.
I have not worked out what people do when it rains yet. I whine, in London, about the drizzle or the relentless grey downpours, but in Singapore there is no screwing around: the heavens just open and the thunder is shattering.
In Raffles, people pay to throw monkey nut shells on the floor. In a creamy colonial building and under straw fans, you can apparently charge extortionate amounts for cherry-topped Singapore Slings and the opportunity to litter. I have heard no sirens in Singapore. I was put off by its police state status but the reality is very different. I’d also kind of overlooked the nature focus.
On Monday, we went to the zoo. I always have mixed feelings about the morality of keeping animals caged up but Singapore Zoo seemed to have the same strange mixture of wildness and efficient order as the many nature reserves did. When you looked up, the chimpanzees were swinging in the trees above the walkways and you were so close to the mud covered rhinos that you could almost touch them.
In the nature reserves, monkeys scurried across the paths through the rainforests, unphased by the sweaty hikers. The trees were so enormous that they must have been growing for hundreds of years. You can walk from coast to rainforest to urban jungle in no time or distance although each space feels like it’s own magical world.
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I have been back in the UK for less than 48 hours. Even if obvious, the speed at which something moves from experience to memory is scary. The Autumn chill is as normal as the blasts of equatorial heat and the sudden nightfall were a few days ago. Human adaptability is an amazing thing.