Singapore: Part Three

SIngapore Family Travel What follows is the tale of my third and fourth days in Singapore. Click here to begin the tale from day one.

Day three, Sunday, consisted of my favorite kind of traveling bar none: travel someplace exotic while visiting friends.


My younger brother’s good buddy Mike moved to Japan to teach English the same year I stopped living there. It was nothing personal from either of us, just bad luck and bad timing. He stayed rather longer than I did, and wound up in Singapore. Growing up, I remember Mike as a fun kid who was nice to my brother, like role-playing games and music, and was generally all right to be around. He and I connected now and again over Facebook, and he was one of the most compelling reasons I chose Singapore for my 72-hour visa vacation.

I woke up, checked out of my awesome Chinatown hotel and rode the MRT out to Little India where I met Mike at the station. We hadn’t seen one another for 20 years, and were both kids when we had, but sometimes being a gawky white man in Asia has its advantages. Thence commenced the best kind of travel experience, bar none.

Singapore 6

We wandered through Little India neighborhoods, through and past shops with antiques, spices, handicrafts and jewelry, talking about everything and nothing at all. The neighborhood gets its name from the spontaneous Indian district that appeared there when the colonial government opened brick kilns and lime pits with a mostly Indian workforce.

Then we stopped for some roti and tea, and talked about other stuff. Mostly family and work, catching up and news about people we knew mutually. One thing that’s still odd to me about 21st century life is how short those conversations end up being. We’re all on Facebook. We already know what’s up with everybody we give a damn about. Singapore 5

Then we wandered through Kampong Glam, the historical Arabic district with its hashish and its carpets and its cafes, and the famous-for-good-reason Sultan Mosque. And we talked some more, about history and business models and drugs and sex and how Mike converted to Islam because he fell in love with a Muslim woman.

Then we stopped for coffee and talked books and movies. You get the idea. Time with people you’ve known a while is effortless — you know each other’s faults and forgave them long ago. And time with those people as a guide and traveling companion is priceless. I’ve done this in Hawaii, Alaska, Colorado, St. Louis and New Zealand and cannot recommend it more highly.

The most memorable local site was what Mike dubbed “The Batman Building.” Lame people call it Parkview Square. Built this century in old-school Art Deco style, it’s a massive block of concrete and marble with all the flourishes you’d expect from a Gotham City skyscraper. It has gargoyles and statues of burly laborers building grand things, and a three-story bar on the ground floor with even more statues and paintings.

Batman Building

It sits there, crouched amid identical concrete housing blocks and 70s sci-fi office towers, looking like a building bloody well should. And the bar is a great place to sit for a couple hours drinking beers and talking with an old friend.

Batman Building Interior

We ultimately wound up at Mike’s place, where I met his wife and infant son and a pal of his wife. They cooked me dinner, then Mike, the pal and I went to get a moderate drink on in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It was night time, so I didn’t see much of the gardens themselves. What I noticed was

Singapore 4(a) How many spaces were filled with people doing exactly what we were doing: drinking from large bottles of lager beers and talking about life.

(b) The shocking number — and audio volume — of the huge bullfrogs in the storm drains. Seriously, if we teleported them all to do battle with all the rats of New York, the rodents would have a rough time of things.

Around midnight we called it quits and, after I f
ulfilled this part of my quest to publicly urinate while at least one sheet to the wind in as many countries as possible before I die, headed back to the house for me to collapse onto Mike’s couch.

Come morning, I discovered the growing frog in my throat and mild headache weren’t a reaction to the air quality of Singapore but rather one roaring bastard of a head cold. I got out of the baby house quickly so as to not subject the little one to my plague, and strode forth into the world knowing my bus left that early evening.

Mike Joyce in Singapore

My first stop was at a food court for the spiciest TomYam soup I could talk them into making for a white dude. The food courts in Singapore are pretty much the same as the ones in Malaysia — a covered, al fresco seating area surrounded by carts or stalls selling the best ethnic food I’ve ever had. A nice lady made me a bowl of noodles and pork in a broth that was one part pork stock, one part salt water and one part fire from the bowels of Hell itself. It didn’t cure me outright, but cleared my sinuses all the way to my hippocampus. I still had the headache, and my energy levels were shot, but I went from 40% of my healthy self to 60% or so.


Pro Tip: When ill in a place where you don’t have a home base…go to the movies. They let you sit very still for two consecutive hours, in a dark room with climate control. I went to two of them.  I don’t even remember what they were except that one had a girl with a bow so I think it was The Hunger Games.

When it came time to walk the three blocks to the bus station it was raining. Not drizzly Oregon rain. Not even New Mexico monsoon rain. I’m talking rain that limits visibility and makes you think about that part in Forrest Gump where he’s talking about rain coming in sideways and up from underneath. I bought a damn umbrella and was still soaked through by the time I’d walked a block. At least the bus station had a covered area.

I’d learned my lesson from my way into the country, and was careful to get back on my damn bus at each of the two stops between Singapore’s Queen Street Bus Stop and the Melaka Sentral station in my home town. I arrived safely, if worse for wear and destined to spend the next two full weeks in bed.
Good times. Goooooood times.


6 Ways to Kick Your Own Ass

The worst thing about working for myself is I’m pretty sure my boss is shagging my wife.

The second worst thing Kick Ass 1is, just like with any job, there are things I have to do that I really don’t want to. Sometimes those things are not just important, but urgent…and yet the call of procrastination is so strong. In a regular job, that’s what the boss is for. You see her walking around and it reminds you to get your ass to work.

Working for myself means I don’t have a boss to kick my ass when I’m struggling to get the grunt work done. So I have to be my own boss. I have to kick my own ass.

And so will you.

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Singapore: Part Two

SIngapore Family Travel

For Part One, go here. You’ll find out why I ended up alone in Singapore and what I got up to unsupervised on my first day in country.

I had a simple mission for the morning: find the Raffles hotel and drink a Singapore Sling. The Raffles was a center of colonial life during the British occupation that turned the island from a small backwater to the center for shipping in the region. (We’ll forgive that doing this stole that distinction from Melaka, my current home town). It’s not only a site of interest to history buffs like myself, but also features in an adventure I’m writing for the Acthung! Cthulhu game.

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Bonus Gardens

Yesterday was my birthday. To celebrate 42 consecutive trips around the sun without dying, my family took me into downtown Melaka to do some touristy stuff. I know, I know…a lot of the local expats poo-poo doing tourist stuff. The way I see it, I didn’t come all this way to not do all the Melaka things there are to do in Melaka. Besides, people with that “it’s not cool enough to be fun” attitude end up having less fun. We headed into town with the goal of checking out this tall sailing vessel we’d passed a few times on other expeditions.

The process of getting to any particular location in Melaka is as follows:

  • Step One: Drive until you can see it

    The Melaka Maritime Museum

    The Melaka Maritime Museum

  • Step Two: Drive until you find parking. This will take longer than you expect, as both traffic and parking are unforgiving here.
  • Step Three: Figure out if you’re paying the city, a business or some other entity for the right to put your car in that particular place. It’s confusing, and there are shakedown scams based on tricking you into thinking you got a parking ticket. These are often run by local security guards.
  • Step Four: Walk to your destination, alert for coolness and the odd impending traffic catastrophe as you go.

We wound down some narrow streets flanked by buildings from the colonial period – 15th century or so — still looking very Renaissance but with air conditioning units in every other window, and we found our tall ship without taking even one wrong turn. This was a family first.

The ship itself is on dry land, a model built to resemble Portuguese trading vessels from the period. The interior had been converted into a really nifty maritime history museum that covers the history of Melaka’s trading from its founding as a port, to its century or so as the most important shipping center in the region, through the Dutch, Portuguese, British, Japanese and second British occupations, into modern independent rule.Bonus Gardens 3

I dig history, and really enjoyed the slice-of-life images the exhibits painted. They did a good job of evoking the sense of Melaka’s busy markets back in a time before Europe and Asia even knew they were only half of the world. I was especially struck by the variety. During its heyday, a year in Melaka’s port saw hundreds of:

  • Ships pass through each month, of different nationalities and designs
  • Languages spoken regularly in port, including many extinct today
  • Varieties of trade goods exchanged, from fine china to pottery to textiles to spice
  • Different types of currency in use, ranging from stamped coins to small jade statues
  • Tons of water and food taken on to sustain crews as they moved on to their next destination

Bonus Gardens 6

After enjoying the interpretive cards, paintings, maps and dioramas, we headed off to dinner. Bev had a general destination in mind so we meandered toward it. On the way, we found our first Bonus Garden of Melaka.

When Bev and I were in China, we spent each day walking from one great and famous place to another. Almost every day, we would stumble through a park between Points A and B that was far niftier than either of the destinations we had planned to visit. For example, between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, we walked through an enormous park where classes ranging from tai chi, to ballroom dance, to badmitton were taking place on this broad flagstone path. We dubbed them “Bonus Gardens” and use the term to this day.

Bonus Gardens 2

Merdeka Park — “Independence Park”

The Bonus Garden in Melaka rested at the nexus of three major markets. It sat, landscaped and dotted with benches and play equipment, between a high canopy of shade trees. Their trunks wound in that sinuous jungle tree way, forming nooks and crooks to climb or rest in. The smells, music, and other sounds of the surrounding city wafted through along with a cool evening breeze.

Bev and DJ were hungry, so they dragged us out sooner than I wanted for a dinner of blisteringly spicy seafood soup, saffron fried rice and chicken satay with peanut sauce (All meals Gabe attends must include chicken stay. Left unsupervised he would eat the entire national supply). We washed it down with coconut water straight from the coconut, and pronounced the evening a success. Then we went back to the Bonus Garden.

The soup was spicy enough to ruin a paint job.

The soup was spicy enough to ruin a paint job.

Because here’s the thing about Bonus Gardens.

Normally, I’m a big believer in staying goal-oriented. The life I live and the things I’ve done wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t. But Bonus Gardens are important. They’re opportunities you find between your destination and your starting point…and more often than not they make up your favorite memories, best stories and most important lessons. Remaining on point, but also alert for Bonus Gardens, is a key aspect of Kicking Ass. Ask yourself:

  • How often do you find out later that you missed an opportunity because you were overly focused on what you thought you wanted?
  • How often did your goal in that case not work out?
  • How many of your best friends were people you set out to meet, as opposed to those you ran into along the way?
  • What percentage of the best things in your life are there because of a random chance instead of an established plan?
  • If you went back in time and asked yourself of 20 years ago what he/she thought your life would be like today, would he or she even be able to guess?

I’m not saying the existence and importance of Bonus Gardens mean you shouldn’t aim for and eventually reach your original goal. I’m saying you should remain alert for Bonus Gardens, enjoy them for what they are, and return to them when you have time to give them the attention they deserve. It’s a balancing act, I admit, but one well worth becoming good at.

One final thing about Bonus Gardens. They are everywhere, all the time. If you’re missing them it’s because you’re looking too hard straight forward and not taking time to look side-to-side. Either that, or you’re still on the couch without a Point B to strive for.