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Trip 35 -- Kangaroo Island and Singapore Walks

Singapore day 2: Punggol to Bukit Gombak
Saturday, March 11, 2023

Today: 42631 steps/34.12 km/21.20 mi/6h 20m
Total: 86693 steps/70.55 km/43.84 mi/12h 41m

The boat's bathroom was not the most inspiring. It was much warmer than the otherwise blissfully air-conditioned main room and sleeping cabin, and it exuded a sultry humidity that made me not want to linger. When I first flushed the toilet, it gurgled and then sent a spray of water (and who knows what else?) upward and outward. It behaved after that, but I learned to press the button at arm's length.

The bathroom sink had a spigot that doubled as an extendable shower head, but there was so little room in there, I had no idea how I'd accomplish a full shower, even if I could have stood upright. It would have been like trying to shower in a regular airplane lavatory. (No, not like the fancy ones with showers on Emirates and Etihad.)

The marina, however, had full showers that dispensed water from above and didn't require me to hunch over. There was no hot water, and of course the guy came in to clean just before I stepped in, but it was adequate.

The marina was appealing in other ways. It was a convivial gathering spot. One could eat hot pot, Thai food, or pizza. It had a bike shop and a gym. Nearby was a branch of Sheng Siong, "the most economical of local supermarkets," according to Amanda Lee Koe's book "Ministry of Moral Panic." (I picked up some fantastic yuzu juice there.)

And if I'd wanted to, I could have cast a line into the marina's onsite pond, where fish were released on a regular schedule. No bites, no charge. Perhaps one of the marina's eateries overlooking the piers would have cooked my catch for me, such as the friendly Channel Sam, where I had dined on salt-and-pepper mantis shrimp and spicy fungus with cucumber.

But I was otherwise occupied last night. Amidst my ranting about the state of public transportation Down Under and Up Over (or whatever you'd call North America), I was looking for housing for tonight. It was around the time I was trying to figure out how to turn the lights off on the boat (I never did; I slept with them on) that it dawned on me that I'd never received check-in instructions for tonight's Airbnb rental. A message to her revealed that she hadn't accepted the booking (although I was charged for it), had no idea I was coming, and had no intention of putting me up.

I'm sure that will be worked out financially, but from my memory there had been only one other place to stay near Singapore's western end, unless I wanted to take a municipal job and apply for a few months' residency in one of the dormitories. The Gallop Kranji Farm Resort had terrible reviews and would have been perfect for the location, but they never responded to my e-mail from months ago and my call last night didn't even go through.

Back to Airbnb. There was a new place I hadn't seen, a couple of kilometers farther than my original booking. It was just a couch in someone's apartment, but for the equivalent of $47.25, it would do. I put the request in and thankfully he accepted it promptly.

This morning, I returned the boat keys to the lockbox on the bicycle and started heading west. The most direct route along the shore would have put me briefly on a different island, which would have been a no-no according to my admittedly arbitrary Abecedarian Walks rules. So I followed a walking path along an inlet until I could cross over without leaving Singapore island proper.

Singapore marks all these paths very well. Every few minutes I came to a sign telling me which "park connector" I was traveling on, usually with instructions for where to turn and how far until I linked up with the next one. And Singapore has a lot of parks. One of Amanda Lee Koe's stories features a Singaporean and a visiting exchange student who try to visit them all.

The paths were wonderful, the traffic lights not so much. Every time I hit a 12-minute kilometer it was because I was waiting for traffic that wasn't there or for signal phases that didn't make sense. And Singapore has a different attitude from Australia and the United States. Its reputation for being a "fine country" -- they impose fines for everything -- led me to be less aggressive about proceeding with the silly little red illuminated figure in front of me.

Most intersections featured "beg" buttons, those buttons they encourage you to press to give you the illusion of some control over your destiny. But they are worse than useless. Often the silly little green person appears regardless of whether the button has been pressed. Other times it appears only after the next cycle; there's no way to avoid a wait.

The one exception I saw today was a device that could be activated by someone who needed additional time to cross, making the silly green figure stay green longer. I like the idea, but the additional green could be activated only by a special card given to those who registered for it. That requirement seemed excessive.

At one intersection I was sure I had seen all the possible light phases without anything in my favor, and I went ahead. The woman who was standing next to me must still be there waiting. This brought me around Seletar Airport, used by only one commercial airline with regular service (Firefly, which goes to and from Malaysia), making it the second airport I've nearly circled in two days.

Then I crossed over the Yishun Dam causeway and made my way inland. I've quickly become familiar with Singapore's government housing: apartment blocks with buildings of about 12 to 20 stories bearing huge three-digit numbers and washing hung out to dry on rods that seem to defy the laws of physics. The buildings are not unattractive, and those belonging to the same neighborhood are unified in shape and color, but they are ubiquitous and easy to spot. They are also going up all over the island.

Within each neighborhood, the streets have the same name but different numbers, and then there are the numbers for the buildings, and numbers for the floors, and numbers for the apartments. So an address might be something like 450 #06-533 Woodlands Drive 62, indicating apartment 533 on the sixth floor (each floor has the same apartment numbers!) of block 450 on Drive 62 in the Woodlands district.

Once again, I sampled lunch from two hawker centers: first bee hoon (a kind of noodle) soup with salted duck at the modern Bukit Canberra Hawker Centre, then a giant steamed pork bun and an onion-and-egg prata (a stuffed Indian-Singaporean flatbread with curry) at the Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre. The latter place stood out for the captions on its pillars explaining the differences among Hokkien, Peranakan, Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka, and other cuisines represented around Singapore. It was a good basic lesson in what to look for.

I walked along Woodlands Avenue 7 for a long time, eventually turning left onto the Rail Corridor, a path that follows a disused railway route. It was an hour of quiet greenery, a sharp change from the traffic and neighborhoods.

My host tonight, Lars, lives in one of those government buildings, so I got a taste of true Singaporean life. He moved from southwest China ten years ago, originally until he finished his studies, but then he stayed and received his Singaporean citizenship.

I found his fifth-floor apartment amid the identically numbered apartments in one of his complex's identically designed buildings. He showed me how to use the washer -- it was time for the last washing of the trip -- and I prepared to shower again after walking in the afternoon heat.

"This is for hot water," he said, indicating a switch on the wall. "But I don't think you need hot water today." I did make it warm -- I may have been sweating enough to fill a swimming pool but I still don't like a cold shower for more than a quick rinse.

My next initiation into Singaporean ways came when the washer was finished. There was no dryer. I started to put my clothes on hangers inside the apartment.

"You can use the bamboo poles," Lars said. "There's a low chance of rain tonight." He brought me to the window, where brackets were attached to the exterior. Slots were placed at intervals to hold the poles.

"Do you have clips?" I asked. These must be strong pegs to hold things that high up.

He showed me. I prepared to clip my shirts.

"You can put the pole through the clothes," he said. "Then they can't fall off."

I wonder how long it would have taken me to figure that out by myself.

One pole held my two pairs of shorts and four of my five shirts. The underwear and socks were dry enough that I laid them out on top of my bag. Lars went back to his room and I started to place the pole into the slots, one near the building and one at the other end of the bracket.

I was certain I was going to drop the pole down four flights or tilt it in such a way that everything would fall off. I prevented the latter calamity by sticking a clip near each end of the pole. I still was sure I'd manage to mess it up.

The window with the bracket was next to the bathroom. I had just gotten the pole into place when there was a voice behind me. "Excuse me, I'd like to shower."

It hadn't occurred to me that there might be someone in the apartment besides Lars. "Of course," I said, moving out of the way.

He went in, and Lars shortly came back out. "If you're interested in seeing the neighborhood, I can show you some places to eat," he said.

"I'd love that! I just need five minutes."

He went back to his room and yet another person came out. "Are you staying on the couch?" he asked in broken English.


"How many days? One, two, three..."

"Just one. I'm leaving in the morning."

He left, and Lars returned to collect me. We took the elevator to the ground floor.

"Who were all those people?" I asked. I was fairly certain I'd heard a woman's voice as well.

"Those are my tenants."

"Staying longer than one night, I assume." I wondered whether they had had any say in Lars's renting out his couch, but it wasn't for me to judge their traditions of etiquette.

It was early -- before seven -- and I didn't want to eat yet, but I didn't object to being on Lars's schedule. "We have a hawker center here, and down the road there's another hawker center." The nearer one had food mostly from regions of China; the farther one offered Indian Muslim options.

I'd been under the impression that Lars was ready to eat, but he was merely showing me the area. He had something else to do and would be leaving me for a while. I thanked him and thought I might go back to the apartment, but the temptation of a fruit juice was too great. Singapore has fantastic, inexpensive fresh juices, including sugarcane, watermelon, lime, honeydew, and calamansi (a kind of sweet, tart citrus).

I sat down with a lime-honey-ginger and took in the surroundings. This was an outdoor area under ceiling fans, part of a string of restaurant stalls and little markets. It was close to the street but set off by enough of a lawn that it wasn't too noisy. Across the street, the elevated metro stopped at Bukit Gombak station. The seating area was filling up with groups of people, families, and couples.

One table had a giant pot of fish, and when it became time for dinner, that's what I wanted, too. I ordered from the Habib Family Restaurant and asked for a steamed bawal (pomfret) in curry sauce with mee goreng (noodles) and lightly fried long beans. I was sure I was ordering too much, but I figured the fish needed a layer under it and my eating had recently been light on vegetables.

It was all fantastic. The place got busier, and a couple shared my table. The food arrived, and the fish was well-spiced and easy to fillet. I love cutting into a whole fish, but usually I end up with a mouthful of bones. I don't know whether it was the preparation or the species or my luck, but here the meat came off as easily and cleanly as the peel of a ripe banana. The long beans had a coating that was faintly salty and sweet and didn't overwhelm the beans.

This was wonderful food...where? Would I find this place again without looking it up? Or does it exist all over Singapore? That's the beauty, and a large point, of the Abecedarian Walks: It's a smattering of places, mostly terrific, that I wouldn't ever have reached by regular travel planning. A cross-section of the world, or at least the small islands of the world, exposed by alphabetical chance and brought on by a pandemic.

There was no alcohol at the Muslim hawker center, but there was plenty at the Chinese-Malaysian one. I stopped for a beer and a much different atmosphere, with most tables enjoying buckets of beer in addition to their food while short-skirted waitresses walked around refilling their glasses.

I returned to the apartment. "Would you like to go downstairs and have ginger tea?" he asked.

"That sounds like a great way to end the day."

While we drank, he told me more about his apartment situation. The place had three bedrooms. He lived in one, his mother in another, and three workers from China shared the third.

"If they didn't live with you, would they live in the dormitories?" I asked, curious but hoping he didn't think it a rude question.

"No," he said. "Dormitories are for construction workers. These are skilled workers. One works in a restaurant kitchen, the other two in a factory."

"Do you need any special qualifications for government housing?"

"No. Anyone thirty-five or older can apply for an apartment." (They're considering lowering that age to 28.) Lars's apartment cost 400,000 Singapore dollars (about US$300,000), which he and I both considered a bargain for a three-bedroom flat near an MRT station in Singapore.

The population of Singapore is currently 5 million, he said, but the government is planning for it to be 8 million by 2030. That's why all the new apartment blocks are going up.

We finished our tea and started back for the apartment. "Do you mind if I say something?" Lars asked. "American politics seems like a joke."

Go on to Singapore day 3