A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
We are leaving KK and once again suffering the ignominy of the dehumanizing process that precedes air travel. Somehow queuing for the boarding pass machine, the baggage scanner, the baggage check-in, security scanning, and once more at the gate shuffling in long lines with fellow queue shufflers as we herd from one process to the next making me feel like I’m part of some digestion process like a great colon. We are ingested at departures and endure this colonic process until we are shat out the other end at our destination in arrivals. It’s no wonder it’s called cattle class.
I’m tired and coming down with the kid’s virus so I’ve swallowed a couple of Claratyne containing pseudo ephedrine (clandestine speed labs can’t get enough of this stuff) which is making me drowsy. At one point Nani wakes me up because she can’t find Abbey. I had told the kids they could do whatever they liked as long as it wasn’t near me – which obviously Abbey took literally because after a search she was found in duty free putting an arm lock on a sales assistant and telling her to tap out. She was also offering to guillotine the obliging assistant who politely declined. The mixed martial arts training via TV is really paying off.
Nani has visited the toilet at the airport and comes back devastated. The lady in the cubicle next door to hers has things get out of control with the bum hose and sprays under the partition wetting Nani’s legs. She imagines a deadly fecal spray has infected her and she is aghast.
Meanwhile I sleep until my subconscious hears the words “Singapore” after the mandatory “tuan tuan dan puan puan” blah blah blah. Nani hasn’t heard the announcement and I drift off again while the shufflers queue once more. By the time I come to again boarding is over and the doors are closed. I say to Nani “that’s our flight – the doors just shut!” she propels into action, rounds up the kids and we are the last to board (it wouldn’t have mattered because AirAsia couldn’t close the door and had to get the engineer to fix it meaning we sat on the tarmac for forty minutes before takeoff).
I haven’t quite figured out what’s up with AirAsia’s seating arrangements. We checked in days beforehand (on my AirAsia app) but for some reason when it comes to printing our boarding passes we are all five sitting separately – four of us around rows 7 to 9 and Abbey down at 30. Nani takes Abbey’s seat and I try and keep an eye on the kids. Oscar hits the jackpot though because the person next to him must have taken pity and bought him a hot Milo and chicken wrap. I’m not so lucky because I’m in the kiddy section (which is normally down the back of the plane) with a five month old beside, an ear-splitting shrieking toddler behind and another kid looking over my shoulder to see what’s on my iPhone eating with his mouth open in my ear.
I’m a bit apprehensive about going to Singapore known as the cash register of Asia. Being more of an outdoorsy wide-open-spaces kind of peace-and-quiet type of guy, big cities don’t exactly light my fire. I am looking forward to catching up with family here though as both Nani and I have relatives to visit. An announcement on the plane says that drug use is penalised by the death penalty. Do they mention this casually so the drug laden tourist has time to shit themselves, break into a sweat and turn white before reaching customs? The feeling of Big Brother, Police State and the myriad of fines here makes me want to read some porn, chew some gum, spit it on the footpath, tag a wall and pee in a lift. (Hopefully Singaporeans will know I’m kidding).
When I was thirteen I made my first international trip here. At the time my grandfather bore the prestigious figurehead-of-state title of President of Singapore. As such, his daughter and her children were afforded VIP treatment as we were whisked through arrivals and customs and out of the airport with a valet parked driver to take us to our accommodation. I still remember the wall of hot humid air that I walked into exiting the building and gasping as it felt there was not enough oxygen in it. It was the first time I’d experienced tropical heat.
Today, with my fondly remembered grandfather long passed away we arrive just like regular people, although the comparative opulence of the new Changi Airport does make the weary traveler feel slightly VIP just passing through. Nani metamorphosises from shedding the husk of her weary-traveler three-week sanitation vigilance and is visibly relieved, her backpacking ordeal over. She all but kisses the polished, mopped, swept, white tiles of world class Changi airport excited at the clean auto flush, auto soap, auto tap, auto dry, auto door toilets. She says she is home now and claims that Singapore is clean, ordered, and safe thanks to the fact that Chinese pay attention to detail. East Malaysia on the other hand may be a little too freewheeling for her.
I probe a little bit and while she, her brothers and her father were born in Malaysia she feels no affinity for the place. She says she feels home in Singapore, Taiwan and even Hong Kong but not Malaysia. Then it clicks. She feels comfortable wherever Chinese is the dominant language and culture and for her she felt the culture shock of finding it difficult in the predominantly Malay-speaking East Malaysia. She also feels that Chinese cultures are cleaner and more efficient. Oddly enough after barely seeing so much as a cockroach in all of Borneo we find two the size of small mice just after arriving – one of which we put on her shoe for a little entertainment.
I will grant her this though; Singapore is pretty. The drive along the smoothly flowing roads with manicured plantings and whipper-snipped lawns all the way into the city is a delight. The cities’ buildings that are eminently serviceable, much like the cells in a human body constantly renewing themselves – are being torn down and replaced by bigger, better, higher and newer. All this though is at the risk of making the city sterile, clinical and soulless – a place organized purely around making the most money with the least hassle. But I stand to be proven wrong and hope I will be.
Nani’s brother John drives us in his new Mercedes to a famous Bak Kut Teh place Ya Hua and it’s delicious. I wallop the tender pork rib in spicy garlic soup, seaweed and fishball soup, pork liver, pork kidney, rice and vegies until I can’t move. I wish that we could doggy back the soy sauce pork hock, but Nani says it isn’t the done thing.
John and Ik Hui have kindly lined up a room with a relo on the 14th floor of the Pearl’s Centre near the Ottram Park MRT train station. We’ve teed up to catch up with our mate Johnno who lives the expat “high life” in Singapore (although he still refuses to pay $80 per kg for Cold Storage grapes). He has a midnight flight down under for Christmas and only has time for a quick beer before heading to Changi.
Nani decides she better go downstairs to find him and asks if i can go with her. I ask why? She says one of her friends (hello Esther) says its a bit of a dangerous and seedy area. What?!?! We’ve wandered around Sarawak and Sabah for three weeks and finally make the safe haven that is Singapore and she needs protection to go downstairs?! I refuse to go down saying that she just told me Singapore was totally safe, death penalty, blah blah blah and make her go down alone. Ten minutes later she predictably comes back with Jonno all in one piece.