Thursday, September 23, 2010


After 40 years both The Reluctant Traveller and Singapore have changed considerably.

My first visit to Singapore was the family affair on board the Russian ship Feodor Shalyapin.  The vessel had a three day stopover, which gave local painters ample time to give the port side of the ship a new if rough paint job, leaving however the starboard side a rusting mess.  It also gave us and a like minded family we met on board a chance to explore Singapore’s many and varied attractions.

We found a friendly personable taxi driver who got on so well with the children, all five of them, that we even left him and his family in charge in loco parentis while we adults did the nightclub circuit. Looking back now I wonder how we could ever have been so trusting.  

But everything worked out well and the children never forgot the neighbourhood kids feeding live chickens to a huge coiled river python in a cage in a nearby temple.

Singapore then wasn’t as squeaky clean as it later became, though men with long hair weren’t tolerated and chewing gum was frowned upon. But on later visits when I mostly used Singapore as a jumping off point to other destinations I was always struck by its clean streets, safe water and tummy-bug free street cafes.

By then too I had started to keep diaries, creating short stories about the places I saw and the people I met. 

Singapore’s Dhoby Ghaut underground railway station prompted the invention of an elderly lady on her first overseas trip; my mother was to be hugely disappointed though, despite her advice, I included not a hint of sex. 

On a previous visit I had stayed in a small but comfortable budget hotel favoured by tour companies and didn’t at all envy the hectic schedules some of these package tourists faced as they raced through breakfast before being herded onto air conditioned buses.  I much preferred my slow jaunts, last moment changes of plan, savouring the often precious little nooks and crannies I chanced upon along the way.

In ‘Mrs Brown and the Dhoby Ghaut’ it wasn’t hard to imagine the elderly heroine being thoroughly cheesed off with the regimentation of her group.

To put it bluntly Mrs. Brown was fed up!  All this getting on buses, going there, hurrying here was not the way she imagined a dream holiday should be.  Mrs. Brown was seventy odd; in fact this was a birthday present from her only son and her first time overseas.  The organised tour was described as a trip through Somerset Maugham’s mysterious East.

But only a few days into the tour it soon became obvious Mr. Maugham hadn’t travelled with a crowd of boisterous young people who walked so fast when the buses did stop that Mrs. Brown had trouble keeping up with them. Nor had he mentioned the choking dust and the strange food that gave her what she politely excused as the golly wobbles.

By now I had discovered how wonderful the early mornings in tropical Singapore were;  the air fresh and fragrant, meeting and greeting locals who took the time to nod and smile, the pleasure of solitude, the lack of bustle.

Like Mrs Brown I discovered Singapore’s underground purely by accident.  Not a great deal happens in the central city before at least 10am and with a specific shopping list to fill before boarding a flight home later that afternoon I thought I’d fill the time with a train ride.
As it turned out I went only two stops before hopping off. 

The journey took only a few minutes.  Mrs Brown alighted from the train to an almost empty station of pristine and shining stainless steel. Around her all was hushed and serene.  It could be a cathedral she reflected, a modern newly built cathedral. Coloured murals dangled high above banks of robot-like escalators. Behind her glass and steel doors purred shut as the train glided away through a tunnel.

Mrs. Brown was left alone on the platform.  Alone except for one other; a man...or was it a woman?  She couldn’t decide.

That first exposure to the Dhoby Ghaut station was indeed like being alone in a magnificent theatre waiting for a performance to begin. The absolute silence was puzzling, there should have been some background noise, chattering voices or tapping feet but there wasn’t, just the faint whirring sound as the train departed and I too was left alone on the platform, alone except for one other.

Wherever I happened to be these early morning expeditions became the norm for me.  I enjoyed the dawn parade, seeing workers set off to market, to begin their day in the city centre, travel further afield by bus or train, or in many cases by shanks pony.  In the case of the Dhoby Ghaut station the one other sharing the station platform with me was one of those early morning workers.  

Mrs. Brown was left alone on the platform.  Alone except for one other, a man...or was it a woman?  She couldn’t decide.

The person was dressed in drab baggy trousers and a uniform style loose blue shirt.  He, her...had short cropped grey hair and walked with a slight lurching limp.  Right now he,  Mrs. Brown decided it must be a man, was riding down an escalator with a rag attached to a broom that he held wedged on the outside of the moving stairs.

Mrs. Brown watched entranced as he came down one escalator and then moved the broom to the opposite side and repeated the exercise on the up going escalator.  She watched quietly from the deserted platform as the cleaner repeated the manoeuvre again, and yet again.

Throughout my travels I would repeat these early morning escapades always fascinated with the alternative face a community presented in the quietness of the pre

For me this solitude was an ongoing theme.  I could move at my own pace, engage in conversations that didn’t involve a business proposition like purchasing an unwanted article or being transported a short distance I very much preferred to walk on my own two feet.  But there were times I found myself in dire straits, a connection to make and a miracle needed to get there on time.  ‘Taxee Australia’ was one example that found its way into story form.

I had on this particular jaunt travelled up the peninsula from Singapore taking the bus connection to Melaka.  A scary journey in a part of the world not then covered by double lane highways nor inhabited by cautious safety conscious drivers.  With my eventual departure flight leaving from Singapore some days ahead I vowed not to return by the mad highway but instead catch a slow dependable train.  This became the story of one imaginary and rather pedantic traveller’s chance encounter with a local.

For myself, wandering around this historically fascinating city, I found the streets in Melaka were dusty and plagued with a cacophony of noisy traffic.  Only in the early dawn, the twilight was I able to feel the pulse of what perhaps Melaka had once been; an overlarge village, a crossroads of the Malay peninsula, a meeting place of numerous tribal faces and castes.  And the habitat of many slinking cats.  My make believe character saw it this way.

The clerk at the Malay Railway booking office at Melaka, which has no railway line, insists I should pay only 15 ringgits while the taxi driver says he will drive me the 30 odd miles to the actual  railway station at Tampin for 30 ringgits.

The taxi driver has already shown rampant greed with today's short journey and I have taken a barely controlled dislike to him.  Confident he has tomorrow's job, the driver drops me back at my hotel and asks what time next morning I wanted to leave. "I will find my own way, thank you." I load my reply with a hefty tone of censure.

Next morning I decide to leave my hotel very early to allow plenty of time to reach the railway station in Tampin. By six-thirty I'm on the street outside with small case and fold up trolley purchased a few days before in Singapore.  In that part of Asia, so near the equator, it's still not full light and the temperature is cool and pleasant.  I have the street to myself.

At a corner I stop, hoping a taxi will pass, then consider with no small amount of anxiety if one does, how will I make myself understood.  My eyes wander over the sign posts at the intersection, perhaps cars are not even permitted to pull up here on this main thoroughfare.
"Stupid woman," I berate myself "drivers in Melaka do whatever they please.  If a driver wants my fare, he will stand the vehicle on its bonnet if he has to."
But not a car much less a taxi, passes by.  A few stumpy tailed cats slink past the boarded shop fronts but pay not the slightest attention to me or my trolley.
A Malay woman sidles up and begins to speak.  She appears ancient but probably is somewhere in her fifties.  My age.  I smile a polite Anglophile hello and explain I'm looking for a taxi.

She is a gaunt woman, stooped, her clothes much worn and faded, feet dusty and gnarled in crude thongs."Taxi?" I ask.  Hopefully she can point me in the right direction. She replies with a gentle, slightly bemused smile.  My Malay is only basic and I'm not sure she understands me.

"Taxi," I try again, hoping she will repeat the word and find it familiar.

Both stories ‘Taxee Australia’ and ‘Mrs Brown and the Dhoby Ghaut’ held a sting in the tail revealing the simple everyday dramas that occur in all parts of the world.  In Melaka I explored the gentle curiosity of a simple minded woman who actually did follow me doggedly through the streets; and in Singapore a worker’s thrill in riding the escalators, incurring at the same time though, the wrath of her boss.

Though not at that time in Mrs Brown’s age group nor the anonymous tourist desperate for a taxi, I too was very much taken by the pristine appearance of Singapore’s under-ground railway stations. 

But,  as was not the case in my Melaka fantasy,  I soon learned to handle departure and arrival times with a reasonable amount of punctuality and face saving poise.


©Robyn Mortimer 2010