Since my last entry, and after a number of decisions that may or may not have been prudent, life has sure taken a different turn. First, I decided to stop teaching. I had had a chat with the nun up at Shitoushan about it, and she said first, to have patience with myself and then if I really don’t like it, just do something else. I felt guilty about leaving, especially the kids that I had grown fond of. But the whole endeavor was like trying to stuff a square peg into a round hole, as they say. Teaching is one thing – and that part was really growing on me – but being expected to essentially be a clown is just not for me.
So, I packed up, said my goodbyes to the school (in typical Taiwanese fashion, they were more worried about me than anything) and went to Taipei, where I stayed with a friend and plotted my next move. I considered staying in Taipei and working a non- teaching job, but they were few and far between so I applied for an Australian working holiday visa as a back-up plan. After a week, I decided that moving to Australia would be my best option for making money and whatnot. Foreign teachers are really the only ones who make any sort of decent money in Taiwan.
I already had a plane ticket to Singapore, so I decided to spend a week there before flying into Perth. First, I spent a few days being a tourist around Taipei. It was somewhat strange switching from work mode back into broke backpacker mode. Aside from the money issues, I found I had missed doing the backpacker thing.
On my birthday, in addition to having a bit of an existential crisis over being 27 and essentially a hobo, I had lovely day of wandering about. I went to the Long shan temple, the oldest and largest Buddhist/Taoist/Chinese traditional temple in Taiwan. There, I met a woman who volunteered there one day a week, and she showed me around and explained the different shrines within the temple. The main one is for anything, but the other, smaller ones are specific; one for money, fertility, love and relationships, school and test taking. Anything in life you need a hand with, there’s a Buddha to pray to. The place had a peaceful ambiance despite being thronged with worshippers. There were long tables laden with flowers and fruit as offerings, and there was a constant stream of people lighting long sticks of incense and sending up their prayers. There was one man, an older, bald, rough looking sort who came up with a sack full of live, writhing pigeons and he released them one by one (to what end, I’m not too sure).
Afterwards, I went for a wander around the nearby night market, and figured since it was my birthday; I’d treat myself to a foot massage. In the evening, I met up with a few people and we went for dinner at a famous dumpling restaurant, Din Tai Fung, and gorged on their fantastic dumplings.
The rest of my time in Taipei was spent quite amiably, visiting the 101 building (tallest in the world), and the ever popular karaoke bars, and of course the eating. The one thing I think I will miss the most about Asia is the food. And the people. I had the greatest interactions with the local people in Taiwan. One day I went to the national history museum and they let me keep my ticket so I could come back another time. And later on, I was taking pictures in the adjacent botanical gardens and a lady with a small child stopped me and insisted that I take a picture with her adorable little daughter, with my camera… she didn’t give me an email address to send it to her or anything; she just wanted me to have it.
On Sunday, I flew into Singapore… visiting my birthplace after 27 years. To say I was excited would be an understatement. And the flight was awesome, too. I can’t recommend Singapore Airlines highly enough. To be fair, I am very easily pleased. It was just a normal flight until after lunch when they came around with little tubs of Hagan daas ice cream. How awesome is that?
I got into the Changi Airport at around 7 pm, and headed into my little hole of a hostel. It was hot and muggy and the sound of frogs burbling permeated the air. The lady working at the hostel seemed to be under constant duress. She was like a Singaporean Napoleon Dynamite; every little thing was a complicated disaster. I had only booked one night, and they were booked up for the next two days and this was of great concern to her, as was my time of arrival (“I thought you’d never show up!”). Instead of booking into another hostel, I decided to take the bus over to Malaysia for a couple days – May as well while I was in the vicinity.
I went to Malecca, a town about 4 hours away, which in guide book terms would undoubtedly be called quaint. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the leftovers from the Portuguese and Dutch occupations. There’s a little square with all the tourist sites in one convenient area – old churches, mosques, temples (all coexisting amiably on one block), a Dutch graveyard, a very cool little Chinatown and loads of camera toting, sunburnt tourists.
Before I had left Singapore, a local staying the hostel and gambling for a living told me that I would be lucky to get robbed in Malaysia, but more likely I would be robbed and killed and left in a field, it being a dodgy Islamic nation and all. Very comforting. I didn’t take it seriously but I was on my toes, just in case. When I rocked up to the hostel – a really nice place by any standards and it was only 4 dollars a night, I asked the guy who worked there, Andy, who was the only other living thing there besides the geckos and a disturbingly large rat, where I could go and get something to eat. He jumped up and offered to take me somewhere. We walked over in the warm rain to a busy Chinese restaurant.
Andy was a huge fan of Chinese food, it was really the only conversation in English that we had. And he knew the owner of the restaurant, so at first I thought he was just bringing his buddy some business. Fair enough, I thought. But when the food came – a chicken porridge and stir fried noodles – Andy and the owner sat and stared at me, waiting for me to start eating. I was immediately reminded of the scene in A Clockwork Orange where the old man is poisoning Alex with spaghetti and wine, and the alarmist words of the gambling Singaporean rattled around in my head. What were they planning? Robbing me? Drugging me? Selling me into the sex trade? Christ, why do I watch so many scary movies that put all these ridiculous ideas into my head?! I made Andy eat, too, and felt a little better. And at the end of the meal, Andy insisted on paying. So much for my distrust! Turns out, people in Malaysia are just as nice as in Taiwan and Singapore. The food, too, is incredible. It’s a mix of Malaysian, Portuguese, and Chinese fare. First thing the next day I found a bowl of coconut laksa (noodle soup with seafood and a spicy coconut broth) with a side of shaved ice, milk and mango topping. I didn’t spend nearly enough mealtimes in Malaysia to eat everything I wanted.
I came back to Singapore feeling a little like I didn’t have enough time left really get to know it, but I did as much as I could with the time I had. I explored Little India, and the city center, Clarke quay, visited the giant, odd looking Merlion (head of a lion, body of a fish) and watched a light show at a giant building stretched out over a peninsula. I’m biased, but I loved Singapore. The heat is a little oppressive, but it’s tropical and sultry and it feels as though the modern comforts are teetering on the edge of being subsumed by the tropical jungle that is infused throughout the streets.
On my last full day I went to the beach in Santosa with a guy called Veejay from the Philippines that I had met in Clarke Quay. Santosa is a little island off the coast, accessible by a short bus ride over a bridge. It used to be jungle, but like much of Singapore; it has been fully colonized by modernity. Now, there’s a giant resort and casino and a Universal Studios. The beach was nice, though. We stretched out under palm trees and lay in the sun like indolent lizards. At night, I talked him into joining me at the Long Bar in the Raffles hotel for a Singapore Sling. Clichéd, perhaps but it was awesome nevertheless. This will certainly not be the last time I am in Singapore.
And with that, I was on the road again.