Sunday, September 10, 2006

Playing the Tourist

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View at the elevator lobby of the 22nd floor at Normanton

This was perhaps the first time in quite a long time that I hauled myself out of bed at 6.30 in the morning, just to make sure that I'd be able to make it to our EN 5231 field trip at Little India. It was quite lovely to be able to putter around the flat in the semi-darkness, and actually watch the sun float gracefully up and above the bank of trees that lined the horizon. And thankfully, it looks like that was the best time to wake up and get everything done in a nice and unhurried fashion: early morning email check, breakfast, shower and ironing clothes, and the added 15-20 minutes of cold therapy on my ankle.

(Digression: Friday afternoon, on the way to the bus stop, I missed a step going down from the condo and landed badly on the pavement. No bleeding, but my left ankle swelled up and I basically had to hobble around Orchard for the entire afternoon, running my errands on a bum ankle. When I got back to the flat, I slapped on a cold compress on the offending body part, and some Salon Pas later on. Thankfully, the therapy seemed to work: I can rotate and bend my ankle - so nothing broken there - and the swelling went down significantly over the past 24 hours. Good enough that I didn't have to take aspirin the night before. ^_^ Anyway, now I can place a bit of weight on it, though I still favor my right leg for the moment. It's not so bad walking on flat ground, but going down steps is a bummer.)

Anyway, even riding the bus was more of a pleasure than a chore. The driver chirpily greeted me "Good morning!" and with the exception of a Muslim woman riding the bottom half of the double decker, there was no one onboard. It was quite lovely to have the entire vehicle (almost) to myself as I made my way towards the MRT.

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Bus 166

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Dover MRT station

I had to take two trains going to Little India: the East-West line from Dover to Outram Park, and then switch to the North-East Line from Outram Park to Little India. En route, I ran into classmate Nathan, who's also Filipino and from UP Diliman to boot, and later on we were joined at the Buffalo Road exit with classmates Grace, Raras, Ryan, Sorelle and her fiance Nick, and Lujing. With us was our instructor, Philip Holden, his wife and in-laws and nephew, and our tour guide extraordinaire, Geraldene Lowe. Buffalo Road is right alongside Tekka Market, where we started our tour. The sun was beating down on the city in full force, and we were still trying to shake away the wisps of cobwebs from our minds and attention spans, as I don't think most graduate students are accustomed to waking up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning. In fact, we're not accustomed to waking up at the crack of dawn at any day of the week.

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Investigating cheap hardware materials at Tekka

After Tekka, we made our way out and crossed the street towards the Little India Arcade. A significant stopover was made at Handlooms, where traditional Indian textiles were sold at a good rate, with the profits going back to the villages in India who made and wove the patterns. It was like stepping inside a kaleidoscope of colors and cloth. We also got a quick lesson in wearing the sari, with Grace modeling for us as Geraldene expertly showed us each article of clothing that made up a sari and wrapped it around Grace. ^_^ She's the prettiest Taiwanese girl who ever wore a sari in our class. Hehe.

We wound our way down a yellow-painted back alley where Indian hawkers sold beaded jewelry cases and exquisite bangles wrought out of copper and metal and colorful sequins and beads. The heady smell of sandalwood and incense filled the small, tight space crammed with buyers and sellers, almost enough to make one light-headed. We all filed down the narrow way in ones and twos, pausing at stalls to pick up a sparkling toy or two and wishing we had the cash to spare, and resolving to return later on - maybe when the cycle of our stipends have been renewed.

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Trinkets (and somebody's back) at a stall at the Little India Arcade

By mid-morning, we were all famished, and had a stopover at a roadside food place, where Geraldene introduced us to the thick, brownish, fragrant drink that locals refer to as tea - nope, it's not the watery green (or brown) -tinged brew that come served to us in white ceramic cups: it was strong and bubbling and tasted strongly of ginger and something sweet and nutmeg-y. People say that after a hard night's drinking, one shot of tea is enough to sober you up. At any rate, it came with roti prata - not that namby-pamby stuff that Banana Leaf Curry serves, but serious roti with a side dish of curry and sugar (depending on your palate) that was also our snack for the morning.

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Ginger tea and roti prata

We also went past hawkers busy with the various decorations for the Hindu festival of Deepavali, The Festival of Lights. Little dew-shaped clay holders are filled with candles and incense and arranged in rows outside the window sills of the Hindu homes in celebration of the triumph of good against evil. In the shops, jasmine buds were strung together into garlands, and punctuated by orchids in Singapore; though in India, they are traditionally tied with a small fistful of roses. The riot of color on the streets and the smell of jasmine and herbs hung heavy in the Sunday morning air. We also saw a traditional betel nut maker - though I still can't appreciate the idea of people gnawing on pieces of bright maroon nuts held together by crushed seashells and lime, all wrapped in leaves. O_o

On our way to the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, the skies suddenly converged with clouds, and within seconds we were all fumbling for our umbrellas and racing from one shophouse veranda to another. I can't help but be thankful to Sir Edward Raffles, whose five-foot way law sheltered us from the sudden mid-morning shower. (During the early years of colonization, Raffled decreed that all shophouses give an allowance of five feet from the entrance to the street, and had those covered. They were considered public space, but the local shopkeepers treated them as extensions of their shops.) When we reached the temple, the sun had come out, but mist-like drops still fell on us like a benediction from the gods.

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Old-fashioned shophouses in Little India. Notice that the top floor serves as an awning for the ground floor, as per the law.

Since we had to take our shoes off in order to enter the temple, everyone's toes ended up getting damp because of the recent rain shower. Despite that, we soldiered on into the temple, where tourists and worshippers alike mingled on the cold marble floor of the interior. All statues were depicted the major Hindu deities, but I was drawn particularly to the statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed God of Wisdom, who was also the scribe who penned down the Mahabharata, and the beautiful life-sized figure of Lakshmi, whose sari, which was donated by the faithful, was changed everyday as befitting her status as the goddess of beauty and wealth.

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An image of Ganesh, riding his mouse; Lakshmi, on her lotus flower. Courtesy of Wikipedia

After the temple, we wound down the side streets and the narrow alleys of Little India, hop-skip-jumping sidewalks and stores and awnings. Produce, fashion, and even video and bookstores with blaring Bollywood music assaulted our senses, and everywhere was a riot of beautiful and elegant Indian women wearing traditional saris and ornate gold jewellry and the bindi which signified their status in life (apparently, a red one means that the woman's married, and a black one means she's available). Geraldene was a wealth of stories: every building had a history, even the buildings she conjured up from memory, and each name had a purpose, a long-forgotten meaning that lent it power for that brief, shining moment that it occupied the circular space that we instinctively formed around our storyteller. Even amidst the constant remodeling of the Singaporean government of the space whose history, at first glance, seemed shallow and tourist-driven, you can still sense the latent power that pulsed beneath the pavement and inside the walls of the old houses. If trees and stones could talk, a different story would have emerged.

And this trip also made me aware of my own nationality, and how much I took the culture I was coming from for granted. I mean, in the Philippines, one can't really be concerned about one's Filipino-ness, but in another country, it is the single most defining characteristic you have. You are not a writer or a student or someone's daughter, someone's child. You carry your country on your back, and the burden is to remember that fact and to treat it as something precious. Even in Singapore, the various racial groups have managed to carve out a physical place that carries the name of their mother country: Chinatown, Little India. (And it's funny to note that we Filipinos are mostly associated with a shopping mall: Lucky Plaza. ^_^) And these people are proud of their heritage. It's a sharp reminder that I come from a country that I am proud to call home, and that one is never really aware of what one has, is never really aware of the boundaries that separate lands and oceans, until one has ventured away from what one has called home.

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Note: Photos of the entire trip is on my Multiple account.

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