Spots of Time

September 09, 2003

Asia For Beginners

You are now in Singapore. 1 degree, 20' North, 103 degrees, 50' East

If you fly along this Latitude in an easterly direction, you will look down on Tarawa, Kiribati; Christmas Island; Ibarra, Ecuador; Macapa, Brazil; Libreville, Gabon; Kisangani, Zaire; Kampala, Uganda; Singapore.

If you fly along this Longitude starting north, you will look down on Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Hanoi, Vietnam; Ulaaanbaatar, Mongolia; Irkutsk, Russia; North Pole; Jakarta, Indonesia; Singapore.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2003

I was not ready to squat – yet. With a choice of options, I was not yet ready to give up the familiarity of the Western toilet for the ubiquitous ness of the Asian squat toilet. The fact that Lonely Planet said squat toilets were considered more hygienic and people who use them were less likely to develop hemorrhoids did nothing to sway me. I had not been too concerned with hemorrhoids up until this point, and I didn't’t think an obsession with them would coincide with my travels in South East Asia.

My bathroom dilemma took place in the Singapore airport, moments after I passed through the “radiation-free temperature check point" (a continued SARS precaution) in a place I never planned to fly through, much less visit. Singapore, (an island/nation/city/state all known by the same name) located at the southern tip of mainland Malaysia and surrounded by the islands of Indonesia, is most famous as a shopping mecca and the Asian home of many Western businesses. Used frequently as a stop-over for long distance flights, it didn't have much in the way of its own culture. At least, that is what I once thought - boy, was I wrong.

I spent my first evening sweating in Chinatown. Food laden tray in hand, I surveyed my seating options. To my right, two backpackers. To my left, two twenty-something Singaporean women. If I went right, I could guess what would happen – we would go through the formalities of where we were from, where we had been traveling and where we were going. If I went left there were no guarantees. I might spend the evening quite alone, or I might actually meet some locals. I went left.

Two hours later I was walking around Chinatown with Kelly and Samantha, the two Singaporean women, who actually turned out to be Malaysian-born Chinese, and having a great time.

A fusion of mostly Chinese, but with significant populations of Malay and Indian, the Singaporean people seem to live quite harmoniously together despite significant religious and cultural differences. Instead of each group being a puzzle piece that fits in with another, only touching but not overlapping, Singapore is more like a collage, with each piece of culture, of religion, of people, overlapping with the next to form a beautiful pattern of harmonious differences. For example, the largest Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman, is located right in the middle of Chinatown. But then, The Temple of 1000 Lights, a famous Buddhist temple, is located in Little India. There are many more such examples.

Once part of the Great British Empire, Singapore changed hands many times before becoming its own independent nation in the 1965. A country without much in the way of natural resources (it must import 100% of all its food and energy), one of Singapore's biggest draws has been the ease at which Western companies could set up their Asia bases here - without the huge culture shock associated with other Asian countries. You see, while there are four official languages in Singapore, most everyone speaks English, which is taught in all the schools.

Maybe that's why I've heard Singapore referred to as "Asia for Beginners" by frequent travelers or expats living in the region. Or, perhaps its because in the space of one small island, you can experience a taste of Asia - without feeling like you have left the western world.

For those who want to feel like they are in the United States or Europe, Orchard Road is like a Western shopping mecca - offering everything from the all inclusive Dairy Queen and Burger King to the exclusive Cartier and Gucci. For those wanting to travel to India, colorful saris, marigold flower vendors and the intoxicating scents of curry and incense are all possible in Little India. More interested in China? Head to Chinatown where you'll find red paper shops, hundreds of yummy hawker stands and traditional Chinese temples. And, there is no safer place for an American to visit a Mosque and experience Muslim culture and food than Arab Street.

In the same neighborhood you are likely to see turbaned Sikh men wearing sweater vests, you will also see blond haired ballerinas holding their mum's hands, Indian woman dressed in traditional saris, and Singaporean youth in blue jeans and designer T-shirts. And, not only are differences tolerated, they seem to be happily accepted.

The next afternoon I met Samantha, a devout Buddhist, at a gorgeous and famous Buddhist monastery, a place she went every Saturday, to work and to chant. I walked through the temple with her as she paid her respects to the no less than 10 Buddha images, bowing deeply, with hands pressed palms together between her forehead and her heart. In-between Buddha, I asked her endless questions about Buddhism - from this specific temple's design (traditionally Chinese) to why Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads (Kelly said that the stress and the worries of the world can be found in your hair - hmmm, and I thought that was just the grey ones!). I also asked her if it was considered appropriate for non-Buddhists to bow to Buddha images when touring temples. She said it was, and that Buddhists saw it as a way of paying respect for their religion, even if it wasn't your own. As we continued our rounds of the Buddha, I joined her in paying my respects, peaking out of the corner of my eye to see if anyone thought it odd to see a white Westerner bowing to a Buddha. No one appeared to even notice.

And then, as abruptly as it started, it was over. Back on board Singapore Airlines, flying toward Bangkok, my 48 hour visit to Singapore seemed like a cheap one night stand - especially in comparison to my 9.5 month love affair with Australia. "Asia for Beginners" was over - in only two hours I would be in The Kingdom of Thailand and my biggest fear of travel would become a reality - how would I manage when I entered a place where I couldn't speak the local language?

Oh, and for those of you who are weirdly curious, the opportunity to use a squat toilet did present it self again – and this time I took it. No further detail shall be provided, than you very much. ;)

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**The above was taken from James A. Michener's book, "The Drifters" (1971) and customized for the author. The formula will continue to be borrowed, as needed, in future columns as the author thinks it is a brilliant way of pinpointing her location in this big crazy world.

Next week: Bangkok, Thailand