Travel Guide – Episode 4 – Singapore: A ‘lifting’ experience
By all accounts, it was a brief trip. Even Charles Dickens would have said “It was the briefest of trips, it was the longest of … hell, who are we kidding. It was a short trip.” Leading travel writers would be quick to declare that spending two days in Singapore does not give the sensible blogger a sufficient enough glimpse of the city to comment about it. In my humble opinion, though, these leading travel writers should stop poking their noses into my business. I wish they’d just stop with these declarations, pack up, and do what they do… travel, preferably to Iraq or Afghanistan, draped in an American flag.
Sorry about that. Now that we got the ‘leading writers’ out of our way, let me tell you about my two day stint in Singapore. It was the first time I was crossing the Indian border. As I climbed up the passenger stairs aboard my first international flight, I knew it was symbolic; one small step for man, but a giant step for… uhh… ants? No, that’s not it…
Anyway, it was exciting. I spent my days there admiring the city – Efficient administration, clean roadways, controlled greenery, safe environment, unbeatable transport system, and a low crime rate – all this in spite of being represented by the merlion, an imaginary creature which is half lion, and half fish… and I shouldn’t wonder if the Singaporeans have their hands full stopping the lion half from eating the fish half.
I spent half my time stroking my chin and wondering what Indians could do for cities in India to become as efficient as that… After a lot of brooding and chin stroking, I concluded that the way to do that would be the simple seven step progress
Step 1. Write an impassioned plea to your MLAs asking for specific reforms
Step 2. Bribe a peon in a major government body to pass on to higher authorities, your demand to end corruption.
Step 3. Send another copy of the letter to your MLA to replace the first one that was lost to red tape
Step 4. Pray.
Step 5. Sedate the language fanatics and explain why diversity in languages and race is an Indian trait, and why it is important to stay united
Step 6. Run before they wake up and reach for their axes, guns and swords
Step 7. Pack your bags, get your visa, and migrate to Singapore.
The smart Indian, of course, may bypass steps 1-6 to get the desired effect without risking an eye and a couple of limbs.
Schedule was tight. I spent half a day running around the city, half a day rushing through the attractions in Sentosa, half a day in the Mustafa shopping complex, famous for being open 24 hours a day. I had precious little time left, and I decided one of the things that needs to be done is to shop for souvenirs. A gift for mom.
As far as shopping for DVDs and electronic items are concerned, I’m a seasoned veteran; a veritable pro, and a formidable foe to the competing shopper. But when it comes to clothing and accessories, I was as clueless as an Amish astronaut. I was guided to the right locations by my cousin, Deepa, and her family. And I also had ground assistance from my other cousin and self-confessed shopping expert, Lilia.
Lilia and I waded through a bevy of shopping arcades and stores in search for something right. After careful reflection, we finally decided that the right gift would be a handbag; It would reflect the right message, viz. – “Hey, mom! Here’s a handbag I got for you from Singapore.”
So we walked in to one of the larger stores, armed with hope, will, and more importantly, my credit cards, to inspect the merchandises on offer. Being almost completely ignorant of the technical intricacies which go into the selection of a handbag, I quickly latched on to a small black leather purse, which I immediately recognized for it’s most outstanding feature – it’s affordability. And noting the curious absence of this parameter in most other specimens presented, I held it tight so that competing shoppers wouldn’t wring it away from me. At this point, Lilia interjected, and patiently explained why affordability is never a positive trait to look for in the evolving art of handbag shopping, and in fact, may be actually a negative trait altogether. “Strange be the feminine protocols of shopping“, I thought. But I was smart enough to keep my thought to myself.
Lilia subsequently guided me to an assortment of handbags, each one, I’m sure, tailored to fashionistic ideals and reeking of perfection, but each one notoriously lacking in the affordability parameter, which, I’m sorry to say, I wasn’t able to completely shelve out of my mind. It’s a guy thing. I calmly explained to Lils that I decided it might be just prudent to give mom my love and a hug from Singapore. I didn’t press too much on this; just enough for her to mentally label me a cheapskate. So it happened that I preserved my affordability ideals while I walked out of the store.
Something felt different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I didn’t even know if that difference was good or bad. Maybe it was the nagging feeling that I didn’t get mom anything… maybe it was the elation at being economical… maybe it was awe of all the spectacular stores we were walking past… maybe it was the handbag tugging at my arm… maybe it w… wha???? The handbag tugging at my… gasp!!!!
I was transfixed. It was the small black leather purse. The affordable one.
If you want to start a career of shoplifting, there are certain places you should cross out as potential training grounds… Chiefly notable is Saudi Arabia, where officials generally gives the offender a mild reprimand by making him deposit his hand, and letting the culprit himself go. While some people see this as a fair system – one where only the offending limb is punished, and not the whole person – let’s not be swayed by the opinions of lunatics. You never know when you may need your hand. You may be having, for instance, an important business meeting the following week, and quite a silly chump you’d feel if your business associate offers to shake your hand and you have to guide him all the way to Saudi Arabia, praying your hand hasn’t decomposed yet.
While Singapore is not the least favourable location to start swiping merchandise on display, it is far from the best. Singaporean shops are notorious for turning a blind eye and deaf ear to any and all excuses/ explanations you may have to offer; legitimate or phony. By all accounts, I should have triggered the alarm as I walked out the door, the security guards should have tasered me, and piled on top of me, taking pot shots whenever they could. Why none of this happened is anybody’s guess. Maybe the spectacle of a grown man carrying a ladies handbag got them stymied. “No, Chin Lau. He be carrying lady’s handbag. You no know what he be capable of.”
It was an honest, absent minded mistake… and there was only one thing to do… return it to the store. The voice of reason spoke otherwise… Interestingly enough, the voice of reason came from the mouth of Lilia…
“Don’t! Don’t take it back to the store. It’s a miracle you got out. What if they catch you on the way in? Who’s going to believe you’re going to put it back? Throw it away and just leave!”
She was right. It may not have been the right thing to do, but that was the sensible thing to do. The store’s not going to go bankrupt because of one handbag… particularly not the affordable one dangling from my arm. God knows if they’ll even miss the bally thing. It was definitely the voice of reason, though I gotta say – It sure picked a weird spot to originate from.
Unfortunately, I’m not used to listening to the voice of reason. We sneaked back into the shop and replaced the item. All through the way, my mind was chanting “This is a bad idea this is a bad idea thisisabadideathisisabadidea…“, and we expected, at any moment, to be buried under 2000 pounds of Singaporean guards. Thankfully, none of that happened. The guards and the security alarm were just as vigilant as the time we took the bag out. The voice of reason didn’t get a chance to say “I told you so!“We heaved a sigh of relief once we got out, this time, crime free. All’s well that ends well, I guess. But if the episode has taught me anything, it is the sobering realization… that Singapore may not be the best place for the absent minded.