When we met at the Esplanade to watch Tommy Emmanuel play, I learnt that C had a friend circle so extensive, it would fill up an entire row in the hall. I asked him if they were all rabid Tommy Emmanuel fans like he was. He replied dismissively saying, “None of us are fans, lah. We just here to have fun. He’s good but not ‘that’ good also.”
But I, on the other hand, thought he was quite good. Emmanuel played with no back-up band or metronome and used the entire body of his guitar to create both the music and the percussion to go with. It was electrifying to watch as he launched into dazzlingly fast arpeggios to go with speedy percussive rhythms. In the middle of his gig, he had an impromptu workshop where he showed how a novice could learn to play The Beatles and spoke about how he would want everyone to pick up a musical instrument and play because that’s the most positive change one could make in a life, an idea I vehemently disagree with having spent large chunks of my teens hanging out with terrible guitar players. After this little digression, he went back to shredding his fingers off and I was going to turn to C to thank him for introducing me to such a good musician when I found C turning to me and whispering, “Hey, we’re getting out of here. Do you want to go have some fun?”
“But isn’t this already fun?”, I said.
“No, this is getting boring now. Come with us. We’re getting late.”
“Can’t it wait after the gig? I’m guessing it’ll be over in less than an hour.”
“No, we’ll be late. Come fast”, he said.
I was angry at my concentration being snapped out of the gig. But I was also curious to know what these guys were up to. So, highly reluctantly, I joined them outside where once we’d assembled, we had to run to the metro to catch a train to Tanah Merah.
Inside the train, I asked C where we were going in such a hurry.
“Pulau Ubin”, he said, excitedly, “It’s an island in Singapore. We have to hurry because if we don’t, we’ll miss the last boat. We go there to camp on the beach all night.”
“But I have all my things in the hostel”, I said, “I can’t just leave it there.”
“It’s okay, lah. Only one night. Do you have anything important? You go back tomorrow.”
“What about food? We haven’t eaten anything.”
“Haha, we just hunt for something, lah”, he said mirthfully, with a pat on my back.
There were 25 people other than myself, with three girls from South Korea, two guys from Kenya, four American dudes, half a dozen Malaysian boys and girls, three Indonesians, a guy and a girl from Australia, two Indian boys, a girl from England and the two Singaporean friends of C that I had already met earlier that week. All of them studied at different Singaporean universities. Until I met this bunch, I had considered myself young but surrounded by college going kids talking about their espadrilles and fizzy hairstyles and Justin Biebers, I felt like an elder statesman with grey hair and arthritis watching his grandkids talk about stuff beyond his understanding. I was also on a different plane of consciousness altogether because most of them were already high on alcohol and I felt like a sober elder gent trying to keep up with their non-stop rickety rack.
C then justifiably got bored of my company and went over to go talk to the girls and I was left all alone to fend for myself. I’m ordinarily quite uptight and terrible at non-nerdy small talk but this crowd of people was so strange, unfamiliar and out of my league that I felt even more alienated and awkward than I would otherwise. I hated myself for ditching a perfectly good gig for some kind of impromptu Spring Break party with tweens. I thought, if I felt so out of my depth at the very outset, an entire night on a beach with these kids was only going to make me even more depressive and lonesome. So I ditched the group by getting off at the next station and took the train that went back to Raffles Place.
I walked down to Esplanade Bridge and Marina Bay to get over the mildly depressive blues I had been feeling. Here, Chinese tourists were faking pictures of themselves drinking water pouring from the mouth of the Merlion, the Singapore flyer was gleaming in the distance with tourists taking overpriced rides on its giant wheel, the Singapore River Cruise was floating daintily in the waters with the people inside flashing their cameras at the skyscraper ship of the Marina Bay Sands.
These scenes felt familiar and comforting and I felt, at that moment, that however much an “outsider” may try to “blend in” and have an “authentic” experience, it’s never possible to see a city one doesn’t belong to like the people who live there do, especially not in the short amount of time one is allowed to spend in a foreign city. Arguably, going with the kids to a part of Singapore a lot of people don’t travel to might have given me an insight into the lives of college going kids in the city but I doubt I would have learnt any more than what I already had from my conversations with C. I consoled myself with the thought that it would have largely been a long night of alcohol and partying where, knowing myself, I would have felt too awkward to get a word in edgewise.
So, to perhaps compensate for this aborted trip, I chose to be an ordinary tourist in Singapore for the next 3 days. I went to the Asian Civilizations Museum to have a look at the spectacularly organized ancient artifacts from all over Asia where I learnt more about Indian art than I did in Indian museums, I walked around the Botanical Gardens for a slice of peace and tranquility, I walked up and down the electronic malls at Sim Lim Square and Funan to shop for electronic gadgets, I visited the Peranakan Museum housed in an old, sprawling Peranakan house with two Chinese dudes from my hostel where the Singaporean guide who took us around was highly curious to know how what he was showing me compared to what I had seen in India, I fought vertigo and the humid heat to walk the 11 km trail in the MacRitchie reservoir over the canopy of the tropical rainforest to the mighty suspension bridge dangling hundreds of meters above the ground and of course, I wasted my money at the Raffles Hotel doing that much maligned touristy thing of having a sugary sweet Singapore Sling in its colonial garden on a warm afternoon.
The more you did in a capitalist construct like Singapore, the more you felt you had to do. And it was only a conversation with an Australian backpacker who was staying in the same dorm as I was and who had travelled on a bicycle all the way from Japan via Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos etc. that I realised there were other places I wished to see and that if I wanted to do so, I had to get the hell out of Singapore. The next morning, I packed my bags and took a bus to the border at Johor Bahru to cross over to Malaysia. Although it’s undoubtedly a city made of and for money, I had a terrific time in Singapore. It wasn’t as cold and sterile as some travel literature led me to believe (I’m looking at you Paul Theroux) with a true cosmopolitan core that gave it diversity and life, a place I could easily go back when I needed some comfort and order.