Tag Archives: Travel

Bugis, Singapore: Why I keep coming back

Yet another shot of Marina Bay Sands and the ArtScience museum taken by yours truly that will come up most commonly  if you do a simple search online for the city

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.

The mall at Bugis, Singapore
The mall at Bugis, Singapore


Bugis Junction, Singapore. It was a very cloudy afternoon.
Bugis Junction, Singapore. It was a very cloudy afternoon.

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.

Bugis Junction, Singapore

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.

One of many placards about the early Bugis people in Singapore
One of many placards about the early Bugis people in Singapore

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.

Bugis Street, Singapore
Bugis Street, Singapore

Bugis Street, Singapore
Bugis Street, Singapore
Shops, Bugis Street
Shops, Bugis Street
A temple in the Bugis Street area
A temple in the Bugis Street area
The Hawker Center, Bugis
The Hawker Center, Bugis
Bugis, Singapore
A man kept driving this motorcycle around the streets accompanied by loud music and inevitably a crowd gathered around to watch. That is the spirit of Bugis.

In Singapore: The Year of the Goat, 2015

The Year of the Goat, 2015, Singapore
Welcome, The Year of the Goat, 2015, Singapore

It is my nature that on festival days, I feel very restless at home. It doesn’t matter whether it’s traditionally a festival I’ve followed for years or a festival I’ve just been immersed in due to the accident of location or company but there is that smell in the air and that sparkle in the light around that just does not let me stay at home while the city decks itself in lights, crowds and festivities.

And so it has been with Chinese New Year this year.

So on Thursday, armed with a guidebook that says SINGAPORE in large letters on the cover, I get to the train station in the afternoon determined to reach Chinatown. I carefully tuck the guidebook away in my bag because I hate to have people think I’m a tourist.

Not a UFO. It's my train station.
Not a UFO. It’s my train station.

Before the long weekend for the Chinese New Year starts, several people already warn me that I should stock up on groceries because “Chinese New Year is like Thanksgiving in the US. All restaurants and stores will be closed. Make sure you buy some groceries.”

The streets had indeed seemed empty when I had paid a visit to the local mall to eat on Wednesday evening, a place which is always throbbing with life but was shrouded in an unnatural, quiet stillness with most shops and food kiosks closed. No exhibitions inside the mall, no crowds on the giant escalators, no salespeople standing on stools hawking smartphones.

The Goat Lanterns at Eu Tong Sen St. and New Bridge Rd.
The Goat Lanterns at Eu Tong Sen St. and New Bridge Rd.

Continue reading In Singapore: The Year of the Goat, 2015

Becoming Indian: Memories of Graduate Student Life in the US

This is the first apartment complex I stayed at. It's changed its name and management now.
This is the first apartment complex I stayed at. It has changed its name and management since my time.

It was all there. The little bits and pieces of India that had managed to pass through strict inspection. For some of us, it was in the form of three or four bottles of the leading brand of coconut oil, enough to last two years of our serious, nothing but scholarly existence in this well-populated university town in Florida. Enough to oil our heads and necks and the pages of our complicated advanced level cheaper Indian reprints of textbooks that had traveled with us through endless labyrinthine chutes of airport security.

Continue reading Becoming Indian: Memories of Graduate Student Life in the US

Memory’s oases

When we were six or seven, we used to live in an oasis in the heart of Calcutta. Everywhere else the city was teeming with people, concrete, dust, dirt, cars, buses and street hawkers–an overload to the senses.

Yet, in the midst of it all was our oasis of a housing complex and a quiet street of some offices–a collection of buildings owned by the Railways to which change had not come in a long time.There had been few new constructions since the days the Brits were here and so the buildings were solid but not modern and the trees were all old and shady. Continue reading Memory’s oases

When clothes travel

The new clothes I brought over from India last week, like many of the other times I travelled, are sitting on a shelf, carefully folded. So did my embroidered sandals sit in their boxes for the entire previous year from when I brought them over from a Kolhapuri emporium. I basked in the knowledge that they were there, a piece of home tucked away in the closet.

When clothes travel over vast distances, they give rise to many phenomena, including fusion in the fashion of the times. But sometimes they also do strange things to people.

A professor in college I suddenly remember, for example.

Even in the Calcutta summers, when the concrete outside our college building grew so hot that even a drop of water disappeared immediately as it fell on the ground and the street dogs curled up in shady corners of the canteen to rest and no one shooed them away, our professor was always dressed impeccably. Dark trousers, full sleeved shirt, tie tightly in place and big black boots.

The staff room for the professors was relatively cool, shielded from the heat by thick walls of the famous building built in the British era.  Everything  else was engulfed by the sweltering heat in the afternoons. Even the railings of the verandah (that you had to walk across to reach the English Honours classrooms where we students waited) were like superheated rakes in the scorching sun.

No matter what the weather, which was mostly very hot and humid, our “Sir” was always dressed the same even as we sat in out thinnest cotton salwar kameezes under the noisy fan listening to his exposition of the wild storms in Riders to the Sea. I half expected him to vaporize inside the contraption of boots and shirt and trousers one day but he never did.

Sometimes he would tell us stories about his time in England at Oxford or Cambridge, about how he rode a horse in Hyde Park in the early mornings while people watched him admiringly. There were other younger  “England-returned” professors in the department, but they had dropped the tie and embraced the open shoes and sometimes appeared in cotton Punjabis on hot days, but our professor  never did.

Many years later I was reminded of “Sir” when I had a similar (but reverse) experience in the New Jersey cold. It was at a gathering on the occasion of Saraswati Puja, the annual festival in honour of the Goddess of Learning all Bengalis take very seriously. Continue reading When clothes travel

Bottledworder is back

Delhi airport
The Delhi International terminal was amazing.

The long trip to Calcutta is over and I am back in New York. It’s difficult to believe that one can be in the midst of the scorching heat of the sun one day and so much snow the next. In both places, people will smile and say you haven’t seen the scorching sun/ real heavy snow if you think this is it!
Continue reading Bottledworder is back

Holiday lights in Manhattan

Yesterday we thought it would snow. The sky turned as gray as slate, the sunlight dimmed, the ducks took shelter under the piers, the water of the river looked like a solid mass.

In short, life seemed like the cloud before the silver lining  except that the silver lining never really came. No snow really happened.

A little bit of solid snow fell from the sky which you could spot if you looked carefully at a dark patch. The little snow was blown around helter-skelter in a way that you could tell it wasn’t rainwater. Enough to check off the list of some earnest young holiday tourist in these parts who could say seen snow in NYC–check on his notebook.
Continue reading Holiday lights in Manhattan

How Hurricane Sandy passed through our town

The NYC skyline after Sandy through the window. Photo Credit: MD

Sandy came and went and left a lot of devastation in its wake. We were more fortunate than many in my locality in Jersey City, New Jersey. We mostly observed the storm from the windows with almost no interruption in power or any other discomfort.

Many of my friends don’t have power yet. Many are throwing away food from their freezers after three days of no power and many spent the night in the cold despite diesel generators. Many intersections in our neighbourhood don’t have lights yet and the road along the river to Hoboken from our side is still cordoned off. The Manhattan skyline looks quite different from its usual bright self with a long, dark section in the middle across the river. The Verrazano-Narrows bridge looks half suspended by an invisible thread from the edge of the river upto the middle of the Hudson since only half of it is lighted and the rest of it has no light. Continue reading How Hurricane Sandy passed through our town

Those readers in the train

Lily Furedi: Subway, 1934
Lily Furedi: Subway, 1934 (Photo credit: americanartmuseum)

I’ve been waiting  a long time for the PATH train at a station in Jersey City. The train will take me under the Hudson river to mid-town Manhattan. It arrives at last and I get in.

It’s not rush hour exactly though not everyone has got a seat. But it’s not so packed right now that someone will trample over your toes or elbow you out of their way to push themselves into or out of the train.

I notice a curious sight.

A lot of people sitting or standing inside the train are reading. Continue reading Those readers in the train

Facebook, old photographs and memories

Throughout the history of time there’s been Facebook. At first, in ancient societies, photographs were used in human social networking only to identify people. But evidence has been found that many denizens of those older cultures preferred other markers in the space for profile pictures to identify themselves  as a flower, a celebrity or a cartoon character that they thought represented them.

In the initial days of Facebook, people were scared of revealing themselves.

And then, a time came when everybody started sharing pictures. Those inhibitions started receding slowly, much like the slow ebbing of a wave on the beach.  Perhaps teenagers who are on Facebook nowadays can’t even remember those days.

But I can. I can remember that day on the beach.

That’s because an old photograph has resurfaced on Facebook.
Continue reading Facebook, old photographs and memories

Signs of Toronto

When a city is walkable, there’s always people. And when there are people, they’re always saying something. It’s the din and the noise and the hustle and the bustle that make you remember you’re part of something bigger, something more than yourself.

Being elbowed painfully in a crowd rushing to office or having the end of a high heel ram into your big toe can jolt you out of that reverie and cut you down to size too.

A city can be impersonal. A city can be lonely.

Dundas Square, Toronto. A space full of people, kids of all ages rushing through the fountains, concerts and street musicians in the evenings but rather empty in the morning.

But sometimes, a voice reaches out from the crowd, a sign stands out that’s distinctive in some way. The distinction tells you there’s a person behind the words, a thinking mind somewhere, someone trying to talk, to imagine, to speak in a way that goes just a little bit beyond the utilitarian purpose of what the sign is meant for.

That’s the urban poet for me. Continue reading Signs of Toronto

Text and nature at Niagara Falls

We got into the car last week and drove off and kept driving until we reached the Niagara Falls. Took about ten hours but never mind. We were rewarded for enduring the heat and the scorching sun:

Continue reading Text and nature at Niagara Falls

The Writer (Part 1)

In my wanderings through various cities and university towns, I encountered a strange creature called the writer (and its close cousin, the critic). I was told that it is an endangered species. The world does not need it much any more having advanced to higher levels of the human condition thanks to the blessings of technological advancement.

Now  that the governments of the world are  only nurturing  STEM’s– Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics–to pave the way to the future, no one quite knows what to do with these writers–these fruits of  civilization.

Peeled, whole, and longitudinal section
Peeled, whole, and longitudinal section (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continue reading The Writer (Part 1)

Cafes and the city

I’m writing this blog as I’m sitting at a café. Cafés have character and this has one.

This isn’t a big name-brand café but a very successful one. It’s in SoHo right in the heart of Manhattan’s artists’ studios and big fashion stores. The café is fairly full of artists and fashionistas while a new breed of finance professionals whose offices have moved here are drinking coffee here too. In fact, the latter comprise the majority. Continue reading Cafes and the city

It’s a dog’s life

English: Pencil Drawing

It’s a beautiful day and I’ve been at my window watching dogs pass by with their owners. Now, I live in a place where there is very little dirt and the concrete, on sunny days, it glows like a clean white plate right out of the dishwasher. Not a crack, not a speck of yesterday’s dirt. The water of the river is blue and the ships, they look perfectly painted.

There are so many dogs! The dogs here, like the people, have an attitude. Continue reading It’s a dog’s life