The depth of my knowledge about Singapore up until our arrival had
been gathered from the news in the 1990’s, and from reading Paul Theroux
books. I knew that the entire structure and inner workings of the city-state were conceived by one person, a sort of Wizard of Oz deciding what would fly and what wouldn’t.
I knew that the laws there were so strict, and the punishments so severe, that there was virtually no crime. Chewing gum was illegal, but prostitution was allowed, and vandalizing cars would get your ass repeatedly caned with a bamboo switch.
The special insert that the border agent slipped into our passports summed up the essence of the city’s low crime rates:
Warning: death to drug traffickers under Singapore law
You cross the border into Singapore with a dime bag and they straight up
kill you. And they’re old school about it—their method of choice is hanging. I
shuddered at the thought of the unmarked Ziploc bag in Sheena’s backpack
containing generic pain killers. I swear! These aren’t drugs!
Bill Clinton stood up for Michael Fay after he vandalized a bunch of cars
and was arrested, and I was pretty sure that Barack would get my back if an
international painkiller incident were to arise. Of course, even with Bill Clinton
begging for leniency, Michael Fay still had to grab his ankles and feel the full
stinging force of Singaporean law.
Sheena and I sat quietly on the bus as we entered Singapore, trying not to
break any laws. Yes, the bus. As it turns out, it’s illegal to drive a foreign vehicle
into Singapore if it is outfitted with a bed or cooking facilities. First potential
caning incident: dodged. An unusually high number of things are illegal in
Singapore, and it’s a costly place.
If you wanted to own a car in Singapore, you must first buy a permit,
good for ten years, for $75,000. After that, you must buy a new car, and you
would pay 200-300% tax on it for the privilege. You would then be free to drive
your $150,000 Toyota Camry around for the next ten years before you’d be
legally obliged to sell it back to the government for a few peanuts and then buy
another new car and another permit.
We got off of the bus at the Queen Street Station and let our noses lead
us to the nearest food hawker stands in Little India. Southeast Asia is a
wonderland of cheap, delicious street food, and we were told that Singapore
would be a concentrated paradise in this regard. We quickly found a vast
collection of hawker stands not on the street, but in a giant food court on the
ground floor of a mall.
The city-state of Singapore has 250 malls, and each of these malls has a
bustling collection of food hawkers arranged in food courts, selling cheap and
delicious food. For a couple of dollars one can stuff oneself on his choice of
Chinese, Malay, or Indian food. For each of the four days we spent there we
would walk to a food court when we got hungry, scout out a stall with tasty
looking food, and commence gorging ourselves. The experience usually left us
in a food coma with the sweet burn of chilies on our lips and the smell of curry
excreting from our sweat glands. But not every time.
One evening, after having enjoyed a nice plate of spicy noodles and a
bowl of clay pot soup, we wandered around looking for a dessert stand. There
was only one, so we sat down. Sheena ordered tapioca, while I asked for the
grass jelly cocktail. That’s right. Grass jelly cocktail. I foolishly assumed it was a
reverse-euphemism for something tasty, so I ordered and waited.
Sheena took delivery of an appetizing chunk of steamed cassava root
bathed in coconut milk, while mine consisted of a pile of shaved ice covered in
stringy goo and some pieces of fruit cocktail.
“It can’t actually be grass,” I assured Sheena. “It’s probably some kind of
confection that looks like grass.” She looked at me with worry in her eyes. I
wore a confident smile, but behind the façade I was frightened.
First bite: oh yeah, that’s not sweet. No sir, this is actually grass. Grass
jelly is indeed jelly made out of grass clippings. Neither sweet, nor tasty. Boy,
the shaved ice really makes it a lot worse than it needs to be. Who dreamt this
“Mmm. Grassy,” I said, a piece of long grass hanging out the corner of
my mouth, and caught up in the scruff of my four-day beard. Sheena recoiled
and made a gruesome frown.
“You have gooey grass all over your face.”
I managed to eat half of the bowl, hoping that at some point I would
break through an invisible culinary barrier, emerging into a kind of
understanding with my grass jelly cocktail. It never happened, and I stopped
more for Sheena’s benefit than my own so that she would stop dry heaving every
time I scooped a giant spoonful of slimy, icy lawn clippings into my mouth.
On our penultimate night in Kuala Lumpur, Terence had brought us out
for a crab dinner with his sister Margaret, who was visiting for the weekend
from Singapore. When at last we had left the city and made our way down
Malaysia’s west coast to the city-state at the tip of the peninsula, we were invited
by Margaret to stay with her in Singapore. This was perfect, since our home on
wheels had been declared illegal.
Margaret, her Belgian husband Bruno, and their two children lived in a
nice condominium complex set back in the trees off of a main thoroughfare, as
was the living arrangement of many of Singapore’s middle class. Their neighbors
were Italian, British, and Chinese. There are relatively few native Singaporeans
in Singapore, its status as a great place to do business having diluted their
numbers. It had become the ultimate international melting pot.
Most families in Singapore employ a maid, and Margaret and Bruno
were no different. Not to have a maid, Bruno told us one afternoon over tea, was
to be considered lower class. Their maid was named Wei, a happy smiling girl of
twenty eight who hailed from Burma, and lived in a small closet under the
stairwell in the kitchen.
“I don’t like having a maid,” Bruno had confided. “There’s something
about it that just doesn’t seem right.” His face was pained, and he picked his
words carefully so as to convey the moral contradictions that he struggled with.
“To me, this feels like slavery. I mean, yes, we’re providing a job for Wei, and it
pays very well compared to what she could earn back in Burma, but she isn’t
free. We try to be friendly and treat her like a part of the family, but at the same
time she knows that she has to do whatever we tell her or else she will get sent
back to Burma. She is allowed to live in Singapore because we sponsor her, and
if she loses this job, she will go back to a very hard life. That’s not freedom. She
is our slave, and I hate that, because we are expected to have a maid in order to
be accepted.” He, like others I’d spoken to, were torn about life in Singapore. It
was a city with a clean and fresh face, but under the skin it was suffocating.
One evening I sat in the kitchen with Wei while she prepared food for
Margaret’s kids. I asked her about Burma and her past, and was surprised to learn
that she held a degree in chemistry, and supported two children back home,
whom she was unable to visit. She worked in Singapore because there was no
opportunity in Burma, and she had left so that her children could have a better
On our last night in Singapore, Margaret and her friend Jeannie, a native
Singaporean, invited Sheena and me out to the red light district to try durian
fruit. We had heard that durian only smelled like rotting flesh, but that it tasted
rich and delicious. There was only one way to find out.
We loaded up in Margaret’s car and drove to the red light district, finding
an illegal parking spot directly across the street from a corner stand piled with
thousands and thousands of enormous spiky durians. From across the street, the
smell pressed itself into my nose like a three hundred pound messy-pants
wrestler sitting directly on my face. Margaret smiled giddily and said that she
loved the smell, but I had a feeling that she must be bluffing. I reminded her that
the previous day she had scolded Bruno for bringing a durian-flavored muffin
into the house.
“Yes I like the smell, but I don’t want my house smelling like that. That
would be disgusting, la !” Margaret was a walking, smiling, giggling
We sat down at a table near the sidewalk and Margaret and Jeannie
walked over to seek out the best durians. This was, after all, to be our durian
devirginization, so it had to be special. They came back satisfied and smiling, a
durian salesman following close behind with not one but three fetid, stinking
spiky balls. He set them on the table and gave each one several whacks with a
large knife, exposing the yellowish, putrid fleshy seeds inside. They reminded
me of the bulbous growths attached to an orangutan’s hindquarters, an image that
didn’t help to redeem the fruit of its atrocious smell.
We each took up a fleshy ball in our hand and Sheena and I looked to our
hosts for guidance. Without hesitation they devoured the flesh, smiling and
rolling their eyes in ecstasy. Sheena and I looked at each other, and then started
At that moment, I knew what it was to have a rotten, decomposing skunk
carcass inside of my mouth. The smell was akin to being stuck in a small
cardboard box with no air to breathe except for hot, humid flatulence pumped
into the box through a warm, semi-decomposed pork bung. But the taste, the
taste was something unspeakable, something extraterrestrial. It was a collection
of rotting animal carcasses tossed into a boiling pit toilet, and then distilled into
a soft paste, which we voluntarily placed into our mouths.
Sheena bit one seed, nearly wretched, and told out hosts that she would
be unable to continue. I wanted to understand how people could willingly go out
of their way to eat this, so for the sake of anthropology I forced myself to eat the
flesh of five or six enormous seeds. It never got any easier, and my throat
twitched with each putrid mouthful.
Afterwards, looking for a way to rid ourselves of the oily decomposed
flesh that coated our tongues (Margaret and Jeannie were still giddy and
smiling), we grabbed a table on a busy corner in the red light district and ordered
Chinese food from a heavyset Chinese woman wearing too much makeup and a
dress several sizes too small. All around us old men openly dined with their
hookers, while young girls in tight dresses walked around the tables like sharks
looking for prey. I, with my three lady friends, quickly established myself as the
restaurant’s alpha male and was not approached by any hookers.
With Jeannie’s local knowledge and encouragement, we ordered a giant
bowl of frog legs in black sauce. Why we were still listening to Jeannie’s
culinary advice after the durian incident was a mystery, but the frog turned out to
be quite tasty and we happily devoured the meat off of every tiny bone.
Margaret, however, found the very idea of frog legs to be utterly revolting. With
every frog leg, I watched from the corner of my eye as her face turned gray and
the corners of her mouth turned down. It was sweet revenge.
Singapore is a melting pot of cultures and contradictions, and we left
town having made new friends from all reaches of the globe. We had wandered
through exotic barrios, eaten mouthwatering ethnic food, and admired the city’s
modern architecture. And although we had escaped without having to endure a
bamboo cane to the bare buttocks, we had unexpectedly endured a far worse
“Durian,” our French friend Séb would later tell us, “is like a poo in the
mouth.” And so it was that we rode the bus back to Malaysia with our heads held
high and a faint hint of poo on our breath.
The sound of jungle insects reverberated through the dense, humid night
air and the sea beyond the grassy slope made no sound at all. A slow loris crept
along an overhead electrical wire strung between a tall wooden pole and the
cinderblock hut where a woman cooked rice and noodles for the few jungle
people who lived around these parts. The loris, looking half koala bear and half
sloth, stopped midway across the wire to give us a wide-eyed stare, and then
continued on its way, grabbing a low hanging branch, and disappearing into the
“Anda selalu makan yang sama!” I had seen Hairi’s face turn serious just
before he yelled the string of incomprehensible gibberish. He raised his hand and
brought it down toward his son.
“Setiap kali hamburger, hamburger, hamburger!” Hairi’s hand landed
softly on his son’s head, and then gently ruffled his hair. His serious face turned
soft and he let out a laugh. Hairi’s wife, Nora, grinned widely from beneath her
“My son,” he said, “he always order the same thing. Hamburger,
hamburger, hamburger!” He laughed, and his son smiled at us from beneath his
mop of messed up black hair. A dab of ketchup stuck to the corner of his mouth.
A couple of days prior, while heading up Malaysia’s East coast, I had
studied a Google Map of the area searching for a place to camp. In the low
quality image I could make out a small finger of land extending from the jungle
with what appeared to be a white beach on one side. We decided to aim in the
general direction of the peninsula and see if we could somehow drive there.
As we neared the supposed beach spot, we turned off of the main
highway and started driving on small roads toward the ocean. Several times we
came to dead ends, and several times I hopped out to ask for directions from
“Beach?” I would ask, to which they would confusedly say, “Beats?
Beats! Beats?” and bobble their heads around. I took this as a positive sign, and
continued driving. Eventually we found our way onto the peninsula and onto a
rough dirt road that wound into the jungle. When we finally emerged from the
dark undergrowth, we were on a white sandy beach in a hidden bay.
In the shade of a palm tree, a man sanded the side of a rundown
“I am Hairi,” he said. “This is my home.” He pointed to a canvas tent in a
meadow at the edge of the jungle. Behind the tent, the meadow curved up into
steep embankments covered in tightly packed vines, trunks, and leaves. In front
of his tent the dense foliage opened up to reveal a white sand beach with an
unimpeded view of several small islands. He reminded me of Robinson Crusoe,
marooned out here all alone on the edge of civilization.
We positioned Nacho parallel to the beach so that out of our sliding door
we would also have a commanding view of the beach and the islands. The
setting was serene and beautiful, and as we settled in for the evening we saw a
flashlight approaching our door.
“You eat dinner?” It was Hairi. “My family go to town, you come?”
Without hesitation we jumped into his dilapidated car, squeezing into the
backseat with his two boys. From their CD player, Alvin and the Chipmunks’
rendition of “You Had a Bad Day” filled the car. Nora habitually smiled while
their kids stared at us in silence. A rare cool breeze brushed my face through the
open window as we wound and bounced along the jungle track.
At the cinderblock eatery we sat down at a plastic table outside, and then
a teenage girl came out and set a smoldering egg carton in the grass beside our
table. “Smoke keep the mosquitoes away,” Hairi explained with a smile. He
mimicked killing a mosquito on his arm by slapping it, and then he laughed. The
smoke swirled around, Nora smiled, and the boys stared at us. Sheena asked
Hairi how they were able to sleep when it was so hot and humid. “We open all
windows in tent.” he said.
That night while we slept in Nacho I drifted in and out of sleep. Suddenly
my eyes snapped open and I gasped for air. I felt as though I were being water-
boarded in some secret CIA prison camp. I rolled over and pressed my face
against the window screen, gasping for a breath of fresh air. It never came, and I
dizzily rolled onto my back, breathing belabored, hot breaths of thick water
vapor. The mattress and my pillow were soaked with sweat. I lay on my back for
what seemed like an eternity, our small oscillating fan pushing the watery air
over our bodies. I hoped I would adapt quickly to the stagnant heat and humidity
of the jungle.
The next evening, over another meal of ramen noodles and rice at the
cinder block restaurant, Hairi talked about life in the jungle and about Muslim
traditions. I told him that I was jealous of the way Muslims got to wear
comfortable silk pajamas to the mosque on Fridays.
“If I wear my pajamas in public, people just think I’m lost or homeless,” I
He told us about Mecca, and how every Muslim dreams of making a
pilgrimage there. “Have you ever been to Mecca?” I asked.
“I have not gone. Not yet ,” he said, emphasizing the word yet , and then
smiled broadly. “This my dream, so I will go one day. My dreams are coming
“One day,” he said, “I was working on the beach. I see big yacht out near
island, so I say, ‘okay, I go see.’ I borrow small boat and I row. I row a long time,
and I get to yacht. The man on yacht come out, and he from Scotland. He sail
boat here, all the way from Scotland!” His eyes glistened in the dim light from
the restaurant’s bare light bulb. A swirl of moths and mosquitoes whirled around
and smacked the bulb, casting fleeting shadows.
“The man tell me to come onto boat, so I do,” he continued. “We talk,
and I ask him how one man can come here on boat when it so far away. And he
tell me it is his dream. He say anyone can have their dreams come true if they
try. He tell me to write them on a list and study them so they can come true. He
tell me to write down one hundred dreams and look at them every day. And after
those one hundred dreams come true, I write a new list of one hundred more.”
It seemed a little superstitious to me, but I listened on skeptically.
“So I go home and I think about what the Scottish man say. I say okay, I
find a pencil and a paper, and I write down my dreams. One, two, three, four—I
write down 100 dreams. I hang up my dreams by my bed, and I start to look at
them every day.” Hairi paused, placed his hand on his knee, and lowered his
head. He then stared at us and continued, slowly.
“You know what happen?” he said. “I see that list every day and I start
thinking about my dreams. This list make me think, to remember. My first dream
is I want to have own boat. But we don’t have so much money, so I go and I find
old boat with hole in it. Owner don’t know how to fix boat, so I learn how to
make fiberglass repair, and I fix boat! Now I have boat!”
He was visibly excited by this, and I suppose there was something
exciting in this key he’d discovered. By thinking often about his goals he could
more readily realize them with fewer resources when opportunities presented
themselves. But it seemed like a small victory. Hairi continued.
“Next, I have dream of being diver. But to become diver, it cost 3,000
Ringgit! I do not have 3,000 Ringgit, so I look for other way. I find resort that
have diving school, so I try to get job there. I think, if I can work at resort,
maybe I can learn to dive. I work hard, and they hire me to wash dishes. So I
work, and I ask how I can learn to dive. They say for workers at resort they have
dive class for 25 Ringgit. So I take class. I become diver, and resort hire me to
bring clients diving!”
By now Hairi was beaming, and Nora smiled proudly at her husband for
being so resourceful.
“Next, I have dream to swim with whale shark,” he said. He hummed the
tune to Jaws, smiled, and continued. “So one day after we dive with clients, we
taking the boat back to resort and we see big whale sharks. So big! We all jump
in water and we swim with them. I touch them, I touch the big sharks with my
hand!” He mimicked the touch as though he were stroking a beautiful woman’s
“My big dream,” Hairi continued, “was to touch a battleship. Since I was
a boy in school I like these big battleships. But the closest battleship is in
Hawaii. How do I do it?” By now, Hairi’s eyebrows were raised, as though there
was no possible way.
“So,” Hairi continued, “I ask at resort, and I find out Star Cruise Lines
hiring workers for cruise ships. I ask for job, and they hire me to clean up on
ship. My ship go from Kuala Lumpur to Manila, Philippines and back. One day
in Manila, there a Star Lines ship that go to Hawaii, so I find someone who work
on that ship, and I ask if he want to trade me. He say yes. So I take ship to
Hawaii! When the ship get there, they tell us, ‘Okay, you have two days before
ship leave. You can go explore.’ So I get off ship, and I go to harbor where
battleship is parked.” Hairi slowed down as if savoring every word. “I walk to
battleship, and I go to the side. I place my hand on it, like this.” He placed his
left hand on the inside of his right elbow, a gesture of respect, and pretended to
touch the ship with his right hand. He touched the imaginary ship for a long
time, as if reliving the moment.
“My dreams are coming true.” He ended his story and sat there with a big
grin on his face next to his son, who had long since finished his hamburger. Nora
looked at him admiringly, as if he had just saved his entire family from a burning
bus. And Sheena and I looked at him admiringly, too.
Here was a man with very few resources, who lived in a tent in the
jungle. Yet he had obtained his own boat, had become a scuba diver, had swum
with whale sharks, and had traveled across the ocean to another country to see an
icon that he’d only read about in books.
The next morning, Nora invited us over to the tent for a breakfast of
traditional Malaysian pancakes with sprinkled sugar, and a plastic pitcher of
black coffee. For a family living in their conditions, I imagined this special
occasion must have been difficult to pull together. We all gathered around the
outdoor wooden table and dug into the delicious food as the sounds of birds and
insects echoed around the meadow. A dog bolted out of the jungle, followed
closely by an angry monkey. Hairi yelled at the monkey and Sheena and I
“Wait here,” Hairi said, and then disappeared into his tent. He emerged
carrying a comfortable-looking Malaysian shirt, which he called a baju melayu , and
a traditional plaid wraparound sarong. He smiled and handed them to me. “These
are for you. So you can dress comfortably on Fridays like Muslims.” He asked
me to stand, and then showed me how to wrap it in the traditional way.
He turned and went back into his tent. He emerged a minute later with a
rose-print dress and blouse, and handed them to Sheena.
“Nora made these by hand. We want you to have them,” he said, and
then handed them to Sheena. We had been humbled. We made a quick
assessment of things we could offer them, and decided on a fresh jar of dulce de
leche from Argentina.
For a moment I considered what an adventure it would be if we changed
our plans and drove Hairi to Mecca. It would be the ultimate gift, the realization
of his wildest dreams, and an amazing experience. It really would have been
something, but I let the impulse pass. He’ll make it there eventually; he’ll just
have to wait until it pops up next on his list.