Singapore Adventure

Thursday, July 07, 2005

by venitha

Now that we've jumped the big hurdles of setting up our life here in Singapore, we're enjoying a brief respite before the frenzied dash of moving into our apartment and getting our ocean shipment delivered. We don't have too much to do, and we're desperate to escape both our apartment and Singapore. It's definitely time for a weekend getaway. But where to go?

The options are so numerous and varied that attempts to sort it all out make a vacation even more urgent. After a day of flailing indecision, I opt for easy, nearby, and relaxing: the island of Batam.

Batam is in a different country, Indonesia, so we'll need visas and rupiah. Exchanging currency makes me feel extravagantly rich: a 50,000 rupiah bill is worth $10 Singaporean, roughly $6 US. They speak a different language, Indonesian, which, we are told, is to Malay as British English is to American English. While interesting, this information improves our communication abilities not at all. Note to self: purchase Malay language phrase book.

The best thing about Batam is that it's just a half-hour ferry ride away. Batam is so close, in fact, that we can make out Singapore's city skyline in the distance as we walk along the beach. In between lies a child's picture book open to a page of ocean-going vessels. Jim counts 19 boats at once, and we label them in large bold print: cruise ship, oil rig, sampan, cargo ship, sailboat. Later, we draw in a new one with ourselves aboard: sea kayak.

We have opted for the ease and relaxation of a beach resort, and in many ways, we could be anywhere. The similarities to our vacations in Jamaica are striking, from the depressing poverty outside the resort to the swim-up pool bar serving pina coladas within.

We go for long walks along the beach, spotting crabs and snails in the rocks. We float laguidly in the ocean, which is surprisingly calm. We paddle playfully in the pool, which is surprisingly deep. We lounge on our porch, reading, talking idly, slowly marking the tide's progress on a tree along the shore. We take lazy afternoon naps and, giggling, leave a wake-up call for 3pm.

We play Monopoly, the Singapore version, and are amused not only by the pieces, including a Merlion and a ship, but also by the fact that our new apartment abuts one of the properties. In spite of what we consider exorbitant rent, we will reside in the relative squalor of the light blue district, next door to the jail; we make a mental note to "take a walk on the Boardwalk" of Queen Astrid Park.

Unfortunately, though understandably, Batam has never heard Jamaica's reggae groove. Instead, the musical backdrop is decidedly Asian and has no beat; it sounds frantic to my Western ears. Thankfully, in spite of being predominantly Muslim, Batam has heard of rum, and it flows plentifully, though the drink prices are shockingly high. Or maybe it's the food prices that are shockingly low. A single pina colada costs more than my excellent evening meal of spicy red snapper, rice, and vegetables.

Security is unsurprisingly tight in Indonesia. At the gate to our resort, guards check underneath the shuttle bus with a wheeled convex mirror at the end of a long handle. It's bizarrely reminiscent of a child's toy bubble vacuum, minus the popping noise, for which I am glad when I think of what they're looking for. We decide to go out for dinner one night - we are on a quest for gong gong - and the taxi ride is disquieting. Men in uniforms arm checkpoints along our route, and our driver will wait for us while we eat.

At a restaurant on a pier jutting out into the water - this is called a kelong - we boldly order chili gong gong, about which we know this single fact: Batam is known for it. We are shortly served with an amazing mound of small conch shells drenched in chili sauce. Oh, God. Perhaps it would have been wise to do just a bit more research.

Our waitress shows us how to extract the gong gong from its shell with a toothpick. There is a small foot and then a body, the shape of the spiral within the shell. I am braver in theory than in application, and this qualifies as challenge food. We reluctantly agree that be both have to eat at least one. We are paying tens of thousands of rupiah for this, after all! Bottoms up!

It's really not so bad. Once I'm past the initial ick reaction, it's actually quite good, similar to squid. And the chili is incredible. Jim stops after his first gong gong with the luxury of an excuse: he's likely allergic. Lucky guy. While I set to work extracting enough gong gong to make a meal, Jim builds pyramids with my empty shells and fingerpaints with the chili sauce. Fortunately, this restaurant also serves deliciously fresh squid, a food Jim can eat without fear of violent repercussions. But where's the fun in a food you can eat with a fork? It's undoubtedly the gong gong, we decide, for which the many sinks along the pier are provided.

Sunday afternoon arrives right on schedule, and just as the long list of chores for the upcoming week starts to overwhelm my determination to relax, it is time to head home. In hardly more than two hours we go from lounging by the pool in Batam to raiding the discounted sushi at Meidi-ya. Supper in hand, I examine our reflection in the mirrored walls of the lift to our apartment. I am tired, but I am smiling, happy that Singapore is starting to feel like home.