The depth of my knowledge about Singapore up until about a week ago was 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
That’s right. You cross the border into Singapore with a bag of marijuana and they cut straight to the chase and 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 and/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 want to own a car in Singapore, you must first buy a permit, good for 10 years, for $75,000. After that, you must buy a new car, and you will pay 200-300% tax on it for the privilege. You are then free to drive your $150,000 Toyota Camry around for the next 10 years before you’re 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 has been 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 of Singapore has 250 malls. But more importantly, 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 you can stuff yourself on your 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. You heard right. Grass jelly cocktail. I assumed it was code 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 reassuring smile, but deep down 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. Not sweet at all. Boy, the shaved ice really makes it a lot worse than it needs to be. Who dreamt this up?
“Mmm. Grassy,” I said, a piece of long grass hanging out the corner of my mouth, caught up in my four day beard. Sheena recoiled and made a gruesome frown.
“You have grass all over your face.”
I managed to eat half of the bowl, hoping that at some point I would break through some 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 grass into my mouth.
While Sheena and I were in Kuala Lumpur, we spent a good deal of time hanging out with the city’s two Volkswagen clubs. We made friends with a casting director and VW enthusiast named Terence, and spent our second week staying at his house. On our penultimate night in Kuala Lumpur, Terence brought us out for a crab dinner with his sister Margaret, who was visiting for the weekend from Singapore to see an F1 race. And so it came to pass that we were invited by Margaret to stay in her family’s condo in Singapore. This was perfect, since our home on wheels had been declared illegal.
On our last night in Singapore, Margaret and her friend Jeannie invited Sheena and me out to the red light district to eat durian fruit. We had heard that durian fruit 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 street 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 and said that she liked the smell, but I remembered the day before when she had scolded her husband, Bruno, for bringing a durian flavored muffin into the house. I brought this up to see what defense she could possibly come up with.
“Yes I like the smell, but I don’t want my house smelling like that. That would be disgusting,” she said. It all made sense now.
We sat down at a table near the sidewalk and Margaret and Jeannie walked over to order us the best durian available. This was, after all, to be our durian devirginization. They came back smiling, while the durian man followed them carrying 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 flesh covered seeds on the inside. They reminded me of the bulbous growths attached to an orangutan’s hindquarters, a trait that didn’t help to redeem the fruit from 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 in.
At that moment, I knew what it was like to have a rotten, decomposing skunk carcass inside of my mouth. The smell was bad, like 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 ate 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 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.
Following our durian experience, 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.
At the coaxing of Jeannie, a local of Singapore, 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 Margaret’s face turned gray and the corners of her mouth turned down. It was sweet revenge.
Singapore is a melting pot, and we left town having made new friends from all reaches of the globe. We had wandered through exotic barrios, eaten mouth watering 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 punishment.
“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 out of Singapore with our heads held high and a faint hint of poo on our breath.