Friday, July 01, 2011

Culture Surprises: Singapore (2/3)

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

The story continues...
My first road journey in Singapore started at the midnight. The driver spoke good English. But, I couldn't understand that (It's not that I can understand only bad English!). All drivers that I met in later trips also spoke good English. But, I couldn't understand any of them. I looked at both sides very curiously even in that night. Good country! As expected, he never honked. In the 12 days that I spent there, I could see only one guy that overused the horn. When I turned -90 degrees to see, it was an Indian face. I didn't feel very proud about it like many of my friends who do - looking at such things. I only felt my heart burning for the opportunity he has got despite being so indecent which I haven't got despite being so decent even on Indian roads. I just don't use the horn. But, that alone can't be a qualification to become a Singapore citizen, right?! :)

Buildings were all very tall. Such building have started coming up in our places also now. But, what is coming up here and there here has already come up everywhere there (confusing?!). The roads are very wide. They are very clean (rather, cleaner than required!). I felt bad for the amount of money they waste to keep their roads so clean! It would have fed a few hundred corrupt political families in India. Had we been there twenty-thirty years ago all these would have been astonishing for us. Now that we have also seen, traveled and got used to four lane and six lane roads, they are not so astonishing for us.

As expected, the driver respected the signals. I could see that discipline throughout my stay. But, pedestrians looked very disciplined on first few days. But, later I realized that they are not taking their signals that seriously. But, no one is so irresponsible like here. Even if they cross when there is red signal, they carefully watch if there are any vehicles coming closer and then only they cross. By the way, they are just exceptions, not way of life there. I could never see even a single vehicle going on the opposite direction as we see here. In terms of size and shape, all vehicles looked like our vehicles only. It was surprising to see the same kind of vehicles there also. Bikes are very rare. He drove faster than our standard speed. But, it was not surprisingly faster. Maybe, all those biggies are only in the US.

He drove on the coastal road throughout to come into the city. The workplace was close to the airport, but the hotel was far away from both the airport and the workplace. While nearing the busy streets of the city, even in the midnight, I could relate to the comment that I heard about thirteen years ago about how men and women roam together in Singapore. There is nothing to crib much. This is happening in Bangalore itself these days. When I heard that Singapore is much safer than any other country, I felt very happy to have arrived in such a place. If Gandhi was born there, he would have been very happy to see women walking alone even in such nights.

The hotel was in Victoria Street, which is near one of the main shopping areas of the city - Bugis. When I reached the hotel, there was something to make me happy. Someone whose name badge read 'Parthiban' received me. Went to the room, left all baggage and inquired about phone facilities. He said that I could get SIM card in a nearby shop. On the way to the adjacent shop, I could see some youngsters drinking and smoking, sitting on the stone benches on the platform. They were speaking in Tamil. It was a different feeling watching them like that. It's like the same feeling that I got when I saw some people speak Tamil in my first few minutes in Bangalore. Despite having come so far from their motherland, if they could be so comfortable in a foreign land just like being in their own place, isn't a wonderful thing to watch?

For some reason, I could not get the SIM card in that shop. Bought something called calling card. The shop keeper there also was a Tamil boy. I could not understand his English as well. Then, came to Parthiban and sought his help to use the calling card. He spoke a few words in English and switched over to Tamil - "Do you speak Tamil?". I said, "Yeah". Then, he said, "Many people don't speak Tamil even if they know. That's why I hesitate!". Even his Tamil was difficult to understand. Singapore has its own English and its own Tamil. They are sweet too. So, no problem! You guys could continue to speak like that. We like that.

Just a passing thought - 'Which would be their native place?'. This is the sixth or seventh generation settlers in Singapore they say. Then, where would their ancestors have gone from India? It would be one of those places that are still in India only, right? It should be the same villages, which still don't have basic amenities like drinking water, education and health care facilities, right?! It should be the same villages that do not even have proper road connectivity, right?! If we ask their children, grandchildren and descendants to come and stay in our places, can they even do it for a day? Leave their children, grandchildren and descendants. Can they themselves do it? Leave those who went to Singapore. Those who have gone to Bangalore and Chennai themselves cannot do it, right?

Including language, we do not have anything in common now. The places, facilities, even the culture to some extent have become different. Is that how the children and descendants of the same great grand ancestors have gone into different directions and become different groups, religions and races now?! Is that how our great grand ancestors came from Africa and settled in India as a different race? Is it the same people that came like that have become multiple sub-groups and then groups and are fighting against each other to finish each other now?! Then, who are the sons of this soil? Who is the real son of any soil, then? The more and more I thought about it, I started feeling giddy. So, I stopped there. :)

Came back to the room and worked on the laptop for sometime - till the battery went down completely. We can't use our plugs in their plug points. The whole world has something and we have something else. We have to use universal adapter in between. Then, I spoke to everyone that I have to speak to and went to bed with a great sense of fulfillment. I have defeated my palm lines and the birth chart, right?! Now no one can tell me that I can never fly over seas - overseas. Even if I am asked to leave tomorrow, no problem! I have reached today. Who can erase that line?

Woke up in the morning to roam around. Thambis Prabakar and Kalyan Kumar came to the hotel. I don't think in any other country we would have so many friends and relatives. The city was more beautiful in day. Went to the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit, i.e. both trains and buses) station and bought pass. Could use the same pass in bus also. We can just swipe while getting in and getting out. It would automatically calculate and deduct from the balance. Wow, what a system! We can introduce this in our place also. You don't have to stand in long queues in the railway station. You don't have to deal with arrogant conductors in the buses. Plenty of time saving for everyone!

Went to many places after that. The most important place was Little India. You could even call in Little Tamil Nadu. Tamil... Tamil... Tamil... everywhere! All shops were playing Tamil songs. Bought SIM card in a shop. On the card, Tamanna (A North Indian girl, who is a successful star in South India!) was smiling very happily. My goodness... there also! Then we went to Mustafa Center to buy universal adapter. It's a huge shopping mall. Mostly Indians inside. There was a board that read, "Low crime doesn't mean no crime". That said how much crimes they have.

Could see all familiar South Indian restaurants like Anjappar, Thalappakattu, Saravana Bhavan, Murugan Idly Shop, etc. Went to Anjappar and found that we would have to wait for many more hours to feed our hungry stomachs. Then, went to another Indian restaurant. An Indian, who looked just like our relatives in villages, had come with a fair Chinese lady (Looks like Chinese are fairer than the whites!). Seeing that I started thinking about how the relationship between Indians and Chinese might be in Singapore. Inquired about that also and found that they have no problems as such. It seems, there used to be a lot of inter-group marriages earlier, which has reduced now. There is a Veeramakali Amman temple in Little India. They had written "Veeramakali Amman Kovil" in bold letters in Tamil.

Couldn't see any traffic jam anywhere. It seems, they haven't used up all the space that the small city has (Only after going there, did I get to know that Singapore is an island!). They have more than half of their lands unused. They have been building the city like a well-planned house construction with so much interest and involvement. But, one thing that I had not expected there was the crowds. Everywhere it was crowded. The moment we think of foreign countries, what comes to our mind is their people-less roads and peaceful streets. I have now corrected my belief that it would be only in Western countries. There are no crowds in buses. Maybe, they have good number of buses. In all other places including trains, there is too much crowd. Those who love crowds may love Singapore even more.

There are eight MRT lines covering the whole city (You could also call it the country! For them, that's the country, state, everything, right?!). In some stations they cross each other. This allows people to manage by using only trains mostly. Every line has a color assigned. Red line, Blue line, Violet line, Green line, Yellow line, Orange line, Black line and Sky-blue line! They also identify places by their proximity to these lines by saying, "Is it on red line?", "Is it near green line?", etc. Some lines are straight lines, some make a square and some circle. So, the houses near these lines are costlier than others.

The train goes underground in some places and on flyovers in others. So, the city is not completely plain. Another beautiful thing (should say convenient thing!) is that you don't have to climb up or climb down the trains. You just have to get in or get out. Because, the platform and the train floor are on the same level. You can't read news stories that talk about people falling in the space between the platform and train there. Because, there is no such space. In some places, that work is not over. Only in those places you have to be more careful. That's it. Heard the Tamil announcements in audio form in the trains first. The announcement was to press the button next to the exit gate if we saw any suspicious person.

All official boards are in four languages - English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. It's a mostly Chinese country. But, even they speak English at home. I think this should be the only country that has so much English-speaking Chinese. OK. Why did they accept Tamil as an official language? They could have easily thrown us out after using us for all their construction works. But, they didn't think like that. They think that our people have played a major role in building their country, not just their buildings. They think that our people have played a major role in putting their country on fast track, not just in laying fast track roads. That's why they have accepted Indians also as their sons of the soil. This is the perfect blend of Chinese-Indian culture. We can include Malay also. Malay has many words that sound like Sanskrit and Tamil. But, they don't have their own script. They write Malay also in English. As for the religions, it's a confluence of three religions - Chinese's Buddhism, Malays' Islam and Indians' Hinduism. (Contd... in 3/3)

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