Their morning routine starts with a green powder, mixed in water and gulped down with gusto. Afterwards, they walk down a picturesque back alley to their local food stall for a leisurely breakfast of iced coffee, thickened with condensed milk, and runny soft-boiled eggs. Amid the rising – but still manageable – heat and humidity, they converse, reconnect, and observe their neighborhood slowly waking up.
And for a week, I get to become part of their morning routine. The green powder gets mixed into three glasses instead of two. A creamy iced-tea is ordered alongside the coffee, with two extra eggs. Plus a few slices of buttery, coconutty kaya toast, for the tourist. Sie-sie-ya, thank you I say, in Mandarin.
I am in the hip, up-and-coming Singapore neighborhood of Tiang Bahru, and I am visiting my best friend, Alex, and her boyfriend Ian. (Yep, the Alex I mentioned in my recent blog post about road-tripping through Saudi Arabia.)
Alex and I met over six years ago, while working as ESL teachers at a private Thai school in Bangkok. Though Alex didn’t stay long – returning to the relative safety and luxury of Singapore after only eight months – our friendship had already formed deep roots. Three visits to Singapore, a trip to Egypt and Zimbabwe, and a wedding in Washington, DC, have only extended and thickened those roots. After missing each other in New York this past summer, due to my hectic schedule of Canadian summer visitors, I decided to take advantage of cheap flights from Dubai to Singapore to reconnect with my bestie.
And to reconnect with South East Asia, as an added bonus. I hadn’t stepped foot in this region of the world in almost five years (too busy touring around Africa, Europe, and the Americas, I guess!). Nostalgia has worked its magic on me, and I’ve spent the last few years reminiscing about its night markets, exotic fruits, noodle stands, Thai massages, and Buddhist stupas. I’ve even gone so far as to miss the stifling humidity and heat!
The humidity wakes me early in my bed in Alex and Ian’s ground-floor apartment. My mattress is tucked into a corner of their living room, with the sofa tucked up against it “to give me some privacy.” Kitty, the orange tabby, is purring nearby. Alex and Ian are still sleeping in the room next door. Soon, they will stir, and we will share in the morning ritual I’ve already come to love (except for the green drink – it tastes like grass). Then, Alex and I will go for a massage, or maybe another yoga class. Maybe after that we’ll do some more weird exercises in the park, go to the food court nearby, or have another meal out with her girlfriends. In the evening, we could cook a delicious dinner at home again, or have a few of Ian’s work friends over for another chill party/jam-session. The day is brimming with possibilities.
I don’t feel like writing about my visit of the night-time skyline from the southern edge of town, my bike ride through West Coast Park, shopping on Orchard Road, or the pre-Chinese New Year Festivities of China Town, though. It’s not because those experiences weren’t wonderful – they were. It’s just that I didn’t go to Singapore in order to write about the cosmopolitanism of the city or the endearing Singlish accent. My trip to Singapore wasn’t about Singapore, really at all. It was about Alex.
Just about the only comment I can make about Singapore is about its food. Duh, I’m so obsessed with food that even a week with my bestie can’t side-track me from my goal of trying (and re-trying) beloved Asian food! And Singapore has its share of interesting dishes to try. Its history is a fusion of Chinese, Malay, and South Asian, and the diversity of ethnicities is reflected in a wondrous diversity of dishes. There is Malaysian food, like nasi goreng (fried rice) and mee goreng (fried noodles). Chinese dishes abound (Alex had me taste loads of them, but most have names I can no longer recall!). It’s easy (and cheap!) to sample Singapore-style Indian paratha (greasy flat bread with toppings such as cheese or egg).
And, of course, you can get dishes unique to Singapore, like the ubiquitous chicken rice (which I don’t eat, but sometimes wish I did, because it looks so good!). Instead, I feast on carrot cake, fried white carrot, egg, and spices (not sweet ones!), and laksa, a noodle curry soup with fried tofu (and fish balls, if you’re so inclined).
Share a bunch of dishes with friends or family in a noisy, jam-packed open-air food court, wash the food down with a chilled glass of fruit juice or a fresh young coconut and you’ve got yourself a typical Singaporean meal! I was incredibly fortunate to share a multitude of such meals with Alex and her wonderful family (miss you guys!).
And so, it all comes back to Alex. Food goes into the belly and out the pooper, whereas Alex stays in the heart long after the food is digested and gone. And boy, is she stuck in my heart. It was such a revitalizing week. Alex and I had a chance to reconnect, discuss our lives, our feelings, our world views. We took energy and inspiration from one another, gained valuable insight into our own lives, and left one another feeling inspired to be the best people we can be and to live life as fully as we can. Alex always has that effect on me – you can understand why I keep chasing her around the globe!
I’m sitting on the airplane, en route to Dubai. My toes are painted a hideous lime green as a result of a pedicure where Alex – ever-crazy, or ever-creative, I’m not quite sure – decided we should both get the flashiest color possible in order to remember one another whenever we look down at it. Since neither of us has nail polish remover, the lime green is bound to stick around for months. I look down at my toes now, think of Alex, and smile.
A huge thank you to Ian, for putting up with me in your living room for an entire week (and for the chopsticks and portable-storable exercise equipment!) Thank you to Fay and Bubu for taking the time out of your hectic Singapore lives to see me. Deepest thanks to Uncle, Aunty, and Ma for all the delicious meals, the city tours, and the time spent with me chatting and visiting after so many years! And thank you, above all, to Alex for letting me into your world for a week and giving me a generous slice of your heart! Love you all!