Traveling is often conceptualized as a passive activity, as though seeing new places enriches you somehow when you gather new experiences. Yet, it often turns out to be more about active self-discovery than about seeing a new place, about experience that could not have happened exactly the same way without you, the active agent at the center. In the following post about Bugis, I admit that I’ve been unashamedly at the center of my experience far more than Bugis.
When you place yourself against something sublime or complex in front of you, such as a man-made building or a natural structure, a teeming marketplace or a superbly constructed mall-airport, you think you’re simply soaking it all in in wonder because that grand structure is an objective thing and you are the observer.
Yet, many grand experiences, when you encounter them for the first time, and some grand experiences when you encounter them every time, have the potential of changing you because you don’t just see the object in front of you. You see yourself from yet another perspective, one you hadn’t quite seen yourself from before.
Encountering new experience becomes about altering, rearranging and re-thinking the old experiences which had structured the topography of your mind thus far, which you had become habituated with, which you had inhabited for a while. Your world changes ever so slightly when you see a different kind of architecture, a different way of life, a different set of people, a different history, a different center for the world of a different set of people, about seeing how a different set of people had reacted to the same forces of imperialism and change and adapted in different ways than you.
And then there are places that are very similar to what you have been used to, some exactly the same, some an enhancement of what you already know, some a bit of a sad imitation of a place you have seen before. In our globalized world, such spaces are becoming more and more common and these are the places far easier to find online and on guidebooks than places that are different. Sometimes these spaces, so wonderfully characterized by sameness, are mind bogglingly spectacular reminding you of spaces that are better or worse than what you’ve seen before making you feel like that first experience was more genuine and the current one merely an imitation.
Singapore, for an outsider like me, has been very easy to navigate with its awesome public transportation, clear maps and friendly people everywhere who speak a language I can understand in some shape or form and food, glorious food everywhere. I have not seen such dazzling architecture and such clean bus and train stations and such orderly crowds who respect rules anywhere else despite the huge numbers of people and despite the fact that anything man made that exists does so against a fierce struggle with the elements-: a harsh burning sun, very high humidity, moss, algae, insects, putrefaction that happens almost overnight to anything left alone for a bit four degrees North of the equator.
Despite such obvious advantages that lend clarity about the city to an outsider, from the moment I landed on the fabulous Changi airport, I have struggled to find those places on online sites and guidebooks that tell a long-time story of Singapore.
The Singapore that may not be so fabulously fabulous and yet could be a perspective-altering experience for someone who comes to its shores.
I know it exists. Layers and layers of history peek out of the city in the way people dress, in the hybrid languages they speak, in the food they eat, in people’s names and the various systems they have for identifying themselves and in the way they behave differently in different public spaces. It is a place of Chinese temples and Indian temples and Indonesian mosques and ordered housing complexes and malls and spectacular streets and waterfronts. It is a place where people look at their smartscreens as they walk on the pavement and stand in the trains and a place where people crowd around huge statues of ancient figures to find out their fortunes at temples and carnivals. It is a place where everything is automated but there is a human helping out right behind the machine when you need them. It is a place where people keep within the yellow line as they walk if a sign says they should.
Within this non-chaotic chaos of a populous city-state I found my spot on the island. Or rather, the spot found me. A place I wouldn’t have found as a must visit if I had taken online advice too seriously.
I can’t quite remember when or how it was that I landed up in Bugis. But once I found it, I have realized now that I keep going back every few weeks. I wonder what it is that makes me keep coming back. It isn’t as grand as the Esplanade area with its spectacular architecture nor as distinctive to the tourist as Little India or Chinatown. It isn’t as full of grand old buildings like the City Hall area or as fascinating as the Botanical gardens with its old trees and herbs and orchids and the rainforest.
I have only scratched the surface of Bugis till now. The placards tell me about the Bugis people who came here from the Sulawesi province of Indonesia as maritime traders after the British established a trading settlement in Singapore in the early nineteenth century. They dominated trade in the Malay archipelago until Western ships achieved dominance later in the century. The English word “bogeyman” seems to have originated in reference to the Bugis, ruthless seafarers and pirates (smiley face here) who seemed to have plagued the early English and Dutch trading ships.
For all practical purposes, all this information is available to me via a few placards placed in between carts selling scarves and handbags and make-up in a superb covered part of Bugis junction in between big stores exhibiting major fashion labels and sales announcements. There is, of course, no sign of the transwomen who roamed the area attracting Western tourists a few decades ago in nearby Bugis street which is completely reconstructed now.
Yet, the cobbled paths, the street shops, the huge Hawker Center, the stores that sell cheap clothes and tropical fruits and juices and confectionary keep making me come back many times over. Along with the lychee and the rambutan and the dragonfruit and the pineapple there is always the inimitable durian in the fruit stands. This place is very different from the nearby mall, which is fascinating in its own way but could have belonged to other places too.
But Bugis carries glimpses of uniqueness. Perhaps that is why I keep coming back here.