The other three women in our group had already pressed themselves into the train, apparently their well-honed skill of finding room where there is no room on trains in Japan worked during Singapore rush hour as well.
Scary, scary! she said pressing her wait back against me as the doors began to beep, threatening to close. Scary or not, we had to get on.
A metro system even I can handle
(but cabs are cheap too!)
Adventure! I said, pushing my weight into her back to force her feet forward along with the masses, then grabbing a handle to hold us in as the door closed behind us.
Yay! Adventure! I said again with a bright smile, pushing back the fear of receiving a complaint for being a pushy tour guide when we returned to the ship. But not getting on the train was out of the question – without working phones, there was no way I would find the rest of our group if I let her fear keep us on that platform.
Fortunately, once we squeezed our way off at Marina Bay, smiles accompanied the bewildered look in their eyes — experience was what they were after when they signed up for the GET English Challenge Tour. Probably experience more in line with practicing English while exploring the Singapore than getting lost and unlost with their directionally dyslexic tour guide, who spoke less Japanese than they spoke English and was, like them, visiting Singapore for the first time. Adventure! is what I’d been telling myself all day when I struggled to understand what they wanted to do next, especially now, with only a few hours left and many unchecked boxes on their wish lists.
Already, they’d bargained in Little India, buying scarves at a sari shop, and costume jewelry at a trinket store. The spunky pink-haired grandmother in our group had trouble understanding the idea of 3 for $10 (Singapore dollars) and kept asking – how much? – to the clerk, who played along more enthusiastically after I explained our mission to practice speaking in English. Just as the generous owner of Moghul Sweet Shop (highly recommended by a friend who studied in Singapore, a recommendation I enthusiastically second) who gave us sample after sample in response to their rehearsals of, “What is that?” The favorites were the small, white milk and sugar one that tasted exactly like condensed milk in cookie form, and another made of chickpea flour, gee (butter) and sugar that crumbled at the touch and dissolved quickly in our mouths, a grainy sweetness.
“Can you take our picture?” they practiced asking before posing in front of the shop’s glass case, interrupting the line of locals who called out their order with their money ready for the quick swap of change and treat, almost without stopping before they were back out on the street and other their way.
A young woman asked for a photo swap, seeming equally as excited to take a photo with a group of Japanese women as they were to snap their moment of English conversation outside of rehearsed role plays.
By the time we got off the crowded metro, I knew we should choose between the last tourist photo spot and eating dinner. My vote was the latter, as always — the sweet treats and a stop for fresh sugar can juice and coconut water weren’t enough to keep my belly from growling.
But we stuck to our initial plan: find the infamous(ly lame) Merlion (yep, a lion mermaid) fountain, where we could also snap photos of the infamous(ly expensive) Marina Bay Sands hotel, and from where we’d head to a nearby hawker center to share bites of cheap eats from various stalls.
Besides being limited on time, I had another dilemma — the man the ladies had practiced asking for directions with had surely shown us the way to Arab Street, but hadn’t left our sides since.
At first, the group seemed giddy to have a local guiding us around, especially one who’d lived in Japan for a short while and spoke some Japanese, but I couldn’t tell if they were still excited about his company as we left the shops on Arab Street and headed toward the station. Plus, I couldn’t read the man’s intentions – was he just a nice guy or was he going to pull the “fee for a local tour” gouge when I tried to part ways? I’d already tried doing so in my polite (ok, passive aggressive) ways –
It WAS so nice to meet you! Thank you so much for your time, I’d said a few times, after announcing “one last photo” in front of the shops, and the mosque, and the street food carts in front of the metro station.
But each time he just stayed with us, asking where we were headed next, and to be honest, I had no idea where to get us where we wanted to go. On my own, I normally wander around where I think I should be on a map until I happen upon whatever it is I’m looking for, which, after hours of wandering makes whatever touristy thing I aimed to see THAT much more exciting. No time for Breawndering today if we wanted to see that water spewing statue.
We were warned that the Merlion was smaller than you’d expect for being a star tourist attraction; I’d tried to get out of seeing it – who wants to see a lion with a mermaid tail shooting water out its mouth anyway?
Oh, you do! Great, I said in response to my group’s enthusiastic nodding.
So we followed our new “tour guide,” who’d accompanied us on the SMRT for “one last photo by the Merlion.”
I worried he too was lost as he speedwalked ahead of us through the business district. We couldn’t see anything beyond the skyscrapers that stretched above our heads in every direction, until finally we emerged from the metro-jungle to a panoramic view of the bay, where we all paused and gasped at the sight of the Marina Bay Sands standing tall across the water. I couldn’t decide if we stared because it was too ugly to take our eyes off or enthralling in that ultra-modern-I’m-doing-a-thing kind of way.
Whatever it was, I stared along, trying to imagine the view of us, instead, from the infinity pool that peered over the edge of the long, boat shaped rooftop that stretched across the hotel’s three towers, staring down at the city skyline that was beginning to twinkle below.
Around the corner, we joined the crowds snapping photos of the Merlion, which was more impressive than expected being thrice our height, rather than up to my knee as I’d imagined. My low expectations paid off (and I was hoping my group was feeling the same way about my tour!)
Our impromptu tour guide suggested a photo with a woman in our group, and while she was older than me, the mother hen in me clucked when I saw him pull her in too close.
We’re leaving now, I said, pulling her away from him and back into her comfort zone. We’re joining our friends, I said pointing to another Peace Boat group walking away toward the hawker center I was planning to (try to) find next.
Before he could say anything, I thanked him again, bowed my head (my new knee jerk reaction) before turning and running to catch up to my group and (just my luck!) the group of the GET teacher who’d studied in Singapore. I relaxed into follower mode all the way to the hawker center and was hoping to continue my lead-following back to the cruise terminal, but lost track of the other group as we lingered at the hawker center, swapping bites of nan dipped in spicy curry and sips of fish soup and other small plates.
No worries, I thought, when we actually caught a cab right outside the center (which I was warned might be too difficult to do). My relief evaporated when the cab driver (called “uncle” by locals) realized we’d have to cram four in the back seat.
Please! I begged, realizing that without this ride there was no way we’d make it back to the port on time. More importantly, I had no idea where we were. But I should’ve known – in a place where you can be fined for chewing gum and arrested for spitting, why would even an uncle take the risk?
What now? I thought, the same question reflected in my group’s eyes as the cab sped away.
Follow me, I said — words my friends would laugh at; all too familiar with my uncanny ability to chose the wrong direction, they’d wisely walk the opposite way.
Adventure! we chanted together, over and over, after each time I had to stop to ask for directions, then collectively sighing as we caught our breath on the final escalator down to the train that would take us to the port.
Our excited chatter on the train was interrupted by a familiar face. The young woman from the sweet shop!
By their high-pitched excitement, you’d think they serendipitously ran into a childhood friend in this far off country and not a stranger they’d bumped into earlier that day. Maybe we would be late from being lost, but I couldn’t resist melting into the cheesy feeling that we were right where we needed to be.