Monday, November 03, 2008

An Unlikely Backpacker

And what do you know? If conditions are conducive enough, if the gods are kind, if the heart rules over the head and impulses take control too quickly for resistance, wonders happen. For instance, my walking up and down the streets of Singapore all alone, exploring, feeling like a tourist and enjoying it, stumbling upon interesting sights and sounds- this is a wonder, if you know me. Back home in India, I was never fond of venturing out of home. Now, however, I crave for opportunities to set out like a backpacker, pretending to be a backpacker and sniffing out all the nooks and crannies that attract people to this big city, or little country, however you choose to look at it.

It was this impulse that prevailed over the sterner stirrings of common sense Saturday afternoon, and led me to achieve what weeks of planning could not- a trip through Chinatown.

On my way home from the library, armed with four books, my reading supply for the next three weeks, I made the sudden decision to go to Chinatown. Knowing full well that my head was fighting a last-minute, losing battle with my heart, I stepped off the train at Chinatown station, and thus began my adventure. For I did not know where I wanted to go, which exit to take. I headed for the locality map and studied the names of the places around the station. The hotels and the law courts certainly did not appeal to me; Temple Street, Pagoda Street and Culture Street, though, had a definite touristy ring to them. Besides, these seemed like the areas most likely to house a monastery (let me explain here that visiting a monastery has been one of my cherised dreams ever since I set foot in Singapore).

So off I went through Exit A, stepping right into the narrow aisles of shops selling jewellery, souvenirs, clothes and watches, keeping the sun away with their roofs drawing close together. Behind these stalls are numerous restaurants and shops selling antiques and Chinese medicine. The upper storey of each building is old-fashioned and quaint, with wooden windows painted blue, green and yellow, one facade adorned with red elliptical objects. One of these shops, though some inexplicable incongruity in the middle of a Chinese settlement, is home to a Cuban cigar enterprise. Maybe I shouldn't be too surprised at it, after all, for this area is a confluence of nationalities, settlers and tourists, where Austrian bread and German sausages ( are sold beside Chinese incense. No Chinese music here, though; I hear Dancing Queen at one stall, Ronan Keating at the next. Any Chinese pop seems like an aberration.

I decided to leave the shopping for later and just walk through the streets. There is something simple, timeless and charming about these old streets and the antiquated architecture, making an old-fashioned heart feel fiercely protective of them. Looking upwards, you see the quaint buildings juxtaposed against soaring, ambitious skyscrapers; this, a quiet little world much removed from today, thriving and flourishing, inviting people to experience what was, once upon a time. You feel a sympathy for it, as it stands there gracefully like some of the less fortunate elderly, making a mute appeal not to be misunderstood and shunted out in the wake of younger, sprightlier settlements. How I felt the contrast, coming away from the starting, sputtering fountains of Bugis Junction, the splendid facade of the Intercontinental, the designer boutiques where people spend till siezed by guilt, the cool dim comfort of the library.

(The Unlikely Backpacker's exploring will continue into the next post, as the real thing is yet to come, and requires quite a bit of detailing and patience- the monastery, the story behind the Street of the Dead, and any other exploring that I might manage to squeeze in before my next post.)


Arun said...

//"the story behind the Street of the Dead"...
ah I'd like to hear that !!!

you missed the part where ya got stuck in the elevator ;)

I loved this Ashwin, you've got a terrific knack for observing and describing even the most minute of details !

Kanishkaa said...

i will second that! elevator?? ha ha..dei why didnt tell me??

u can be thankful they werent playing Japanese's atrocious.will tell u a funny story abt that later :-)

Jaya S said...

Arun: Yes, you will hear the story pretty soon now :-). Thanks a lot!

Kanishkaa: The elevator story? Well, I thought I should let you retain the Kramer tag. You may not be fond of too much competition, you know ;-). Would love to listen to your Japanese rock story.

Balaji Srinivasan said...

Lovely post!

You have written it so well. Loved the way you have written it!

How did I miss this blog! I'm gonna read all the posts that I have missed in this blog. :)