Part one – Singapore
I land in Singapore at 04:45, ten minutes ahead of schedule, which suites me fine; I can have a cup of coffee and a bite to eat before time sets in to begin my fast. Changi Airport, as usual, has no equal in this world; modern, squeaky clean, very beautiful, extremely efficient. A sleepy, red-eyed Malay immigration officer stamps my passport without saying a word and returns to sleep, eyes wide open.
A word about Singapore Airlines; many frequent travellers go gaga about Emirates Airlines Business Class - there is no comparison; Emirates is almost amateurish, have so much to learn from Singapore Airlines. My threadbare priced frequent flyer miles business class ticket on Singapore Airlines is an experience in flawless, exquisite comfort, both in luxury and (halal food) culinary experience. The eighteen nonstop hours it takes flying from Newark to Singapore is exceptionally comfortable, even though my legs feel like wool on arrival and I am still groggy in the afternoons.
After fajr prayers under a staircase in arrivals hall where I get curious glances from early morning travellers, I take the MRT to Little India where my hotel, Santa Grand Little India is located. Again, the experience is flawless, ticket fare inexpensive, the metro clinically clean and though crowded with office goers, everything about the ride is orderly and disciplined. If you have ever observed an ant colony up close, you know what I am talking about. A short walk to the hotel from Little India Station and things change.
I smell Little India before I reach the neighborhood; pungent aroma of fried crushed garlic, onions and chilies makes my tummy rumble, even early this morning, awful smell of hing-spice lingers over most shuttered shops and bhajaans hymns stream from homes and early opening businesses. I have entered a whole different world; Little India is where most Singaporeans of (South) Indian descent live. Very dark skinned people, faces saffron or white streaked, dart in and out of a temple across my hotel, carrying trays full of sweet meats and whole coconut.
My hotel room immediately reminds me of my eventual abode at kabranstan. Though clean and neat, it is tiny and claustrophobic; I keep bumping into furniture. There is no room to recite salaat; I have to move the bed to make space. Since it is a ‘budget’ hotel, I have to ask for soap before I am given some. Prices (of everything or of every service) in this city can give you instant heartburn; it is mighty pricy. Singaporeans, perhaps due to lifelong adherence to rules, have forgotten how to smile. A dour looking hotel manager brings me an electric converter and charges S$5. I point to a notice on the wall that is, I think, meant to be humorous. It advises guests on charges to expect on their credit card bills should anything go missing from the room, listing everything from pillow covers to hangers to the toilet showerhead. I try and relax her set lips by being a smartass and laughing, jest Can I burp in the room without being charged? She studies me a second and without batting an eyelid quips Not if you cover your lips and say excuse me. Man, that stings. Bad.
Reeling from jetlag, I shower and rest, waiting for my meeting with Shykh Rosli of Singapore and Mansoor from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, key personnel who will supervise the construction of first mosque in the country; the meet goes well and project will commence immediately after Ramadhan insha’Allah. For iftaar, I walk over to Arab Street and have a mutton biryani at Zam Zam Restaurant, at my peril. I forget the owners originate from South India, the biryani is awfully spicy; I am sure my intestines are forever scarred.
The next day is a waiting game with my tummy in knots all day; I await status of my visa that will let me into Myanmar for a couple of days. I fret about people on the ground who will help in assisting CAI bring relief to the desperate Rohingya refugees. I visit Mustafa Center in Little India and salivate at my favorite fruits on display, wanting to buy every one of them but know they will go to waste as eating anything after Iftaar, for me, becomes almost impossible. Mustafa Center is a miracle, hugely successful mega mall; you can purchase just about anything under one roof – all halaal! The cookie / candy section alone occupies the size of a small football field! It is crowded most times but more so with people stocking up for upcoming Eid holidays.
Shabbir Karim, originally from Mombasa now a permanent resident of Singapore, kindly invites me for iftaar at his home. I join his family and another acquaintance, Rafiq Dina for a treat of iftaar. It is Kiswahili feast; kebabs, kuku pakka, (elchiless) kalemate... yummy! Leftover kalemate becomes my sehri next morning. Returning to the hotel, my Australian contact has bad news. The Rohingya representatives in Australia, although initially ecstatic about getting assistance to their community and eager to help locally, now informs it is too dangerous for them to help CAI, what with the secret police on everybody’s tail, their hands are tied. So sorry, okay? I contemplate cancelling the Myanmar trip; things have not gone my way thus far, my frustrations may impair unbiased judgment.
I read up on the conflict some more next morning at sehri, which only reinforces my resolve to try, just try. I leave it to Allah, He would decide success or failure. I proceed to the airport with trepidation, chances are Silk Air may not even let me board without a visa stamp on passport; the business visa arrival scheme by Myanmar is relatively new. The MRT going to airport is crowded; I have to stand all the way. Reading a novel while standing becomes uncomfortable, and can be precarious if not careful; I study people instead.
Almost all teenagers and young ones are clued to their IPhones or IPod’s, some doze off and on; elder Singaporeans observe their younger generation with resignation and some envy perhaps. There are a sprinkling of Malay women in hejaab and South Indians of course, loud and never in line. A couple, an Australian man and a Chinese women, lovers perhaps, oblivious to others, cannot restrain themselves and decide to exchange saliva. An elderly Bible reading Chinese woman seated across from them decides she has seen enough; admonishes them, What la? This is a public place la! Go and get a hotel room la! Disgusting la! The couple separate and decide it safer to look for hidden treasure in the depth of each other’s eyes instead.
Silk Air issues me a boarding pass after I sign an undertaking I will be responsible for all costs related to coming back to Singapore should I be denied a visa at Yangon airport. A positive development; I depart for Myanmar.
Note: Most Singaporeans frequently add the word ‘La’ after a sentence. So don’t be confused if you mistakenly hear Ya Allah sometimes; it is someone simply saying yes (Yah, La).
Part two – Yangon to be continued.