Changed some money at the airport: the exchange rate for the Irish pound was about 1.99 Singapore dollars (S$) (I noticed when changing money in Dublin the previous day that the pound had dropped to its lowest in some time). The pound sterling was about S$2.6 and the US dollar about S$1.6.
As soon as one stepped outside the air-conditioned airport building the heat was a shock. About 30 degrees, and humid. I thought it best to find a hotel in the city centre, and took a taxi to the downtown area--S$17.
The lush green vegetation surrounding the airport road gave way to the tall angular skyscrapers of Pei and others of his ilk (the picture at right shows his Gateway building) as we approached the city. The well-planned, efficient infrastructure showed the discipline and determination (not to forget finance) that had driven this city-state since independence in the 60's. I recalled how my Siemens pupils who had worked here had sung the praises of the city--"Sauberkeit und Ordnung" was the phrase used most often--praise indeed from a German. The obvious ruthless push to modernize reminded me of Atlanta, Georgia. The heat took me back to Brazil.
There's only one hotel in Singapore that re-creates the class and ambience of colonial times. But Raffles (in picture at left), its neo-colonial facade gleaming white after a multi-million dollar re-fit a few years ago, was booked out. After checking my guide-book I booked into a hotel right next door, in Seah Street, the Metropole. The rate, S$86 (including tax) per night, seemed like good value for 4-star quality.
By the time I had quickly showered and unpacked it was 6:00 PM local time. I needed to track down Foo as soon as possible--once that was done I could plan the rest of my stay. I would be in this area until the 8 March, when I was due to fly from Singapore to Surabaya to meet my pen-friend.
Now the problem with finding Foo was this: I didn't have a phone number, and the only email address I had for him didn't seem to be correct. Further, the only address I had, provided by a friend in the US, specified a place called "Jotter Baru". Extensive searching on the Internet back home had failed to find anything resembling that name in Singapore or Malaysia. But there was a Johore Bharu, the southernmost town in Malaysia--could that be the place? That's what I was going to find out.
According to my guide-book, buses to Malaysia left regularly from the nearby San Ban bus station, so I took a roundabout walk there, taking in Bencoolen Street, a visitors' haunt, to catch a little of the local flavour. The sight of yummy food at the many Chinese restaurants reminded me that my body-clock was screaming "lunch-time". But food would have to take second place to Foo for the moment.
At the station I found an express bus leaving for Johore Bharu (or JB as it's called here), for S$2.40. Upon reaching the border with Malaysia the bus stopped and all occupants quickly grabbed all their belongings and hopped out to charge up the elevators leading to a hall for passport control. I received my first stamps in my new Irish passport, then took my place in the headlong dash to get back to the bus. Apparently, like time and tide, this bus waits for no man. The trip took something over an hour. At the terminus at the other end there was another passport control for Malaysia, which required filling in another immigration form, similar to that for Singapore.
Emerging from the passport office, I found myself just outside the city centre (the picture on the right shows the causeway leading from Singapore into JB). At a taxi-stand on the other side of the road I asked one of the drivers about my destination. I was concerned that since some of the details of the address were incorrect, how reliable was the rest of the address? The taxi driver said he knew the suburb referred to, but it was quite distant. How much would it cost? At least 12 Rinngits. Which brought home to me the fact that I was now in another jurisdiction and needed to pick up Malaysian currency--Rinngits.
We headed first for the centre of JB, gaudy but lively-looking, where I changed some US dollars, to add to my growing collection of foreign currency (I still had German, Italian and British notes in my wallet--left over from Christmas!). The exchange rate was about 3.6 Rinngits to the US dollar. Then a long trip out of the city towards Jayas, where Foo lived. It turned out to be an affluent-looking suburb of medium-sized family homes. After driving around for some time trying to find the correct street, we struck gold, and from the gate of the house I could see Foo (I assumed it was Foo--I hadn't seen him for about 15 years) through the glass doors.
Greetings over, Foo gave me his phone number and email address, invited me to stay after I had "done" Singapore, and then it was back to the taxi and the bus-station. The 170 bus takes you all the way to Queen Street in Singapore for 1.20 Rinngits. I could barely stay awake on the bus--totally knackered--but happy in the thought that the first goal had been accomplished.
Behind the feeling of exhaustion and stiff muscles was the gnawing hunger. On the way back from Queen Street I stopped off at a Chinese eatery in a food court not far from the hotel. The local brew was Tiger Beer: S$6.5 for 6.8L in the restaurant, S$4.5 for a .5L can at the 7/11 store. The food was a little more expensive than I would have expected: S$15 for chicken and fried rice. But the fried rice was a meal in itself, with small prawns, diced carrots and mushrooms and other things mixed in. And I managed to finish it using only chopsticks!
Back at the hotel I started playing around with my SW radio. Found an interesting English-language radio station at 93.9 FM, Deutsche Welle at 9.525 SW, BBC World Service at 11.955 SW and 88.9 FM. There was some disturbing news from Bangkok--a British journalist had been shot and stabbed after accepting a lift from the airport from a bogus taxi driver. Several people were killed in this way last year in that city. I think I recalled reading that one gang was caught for the first killings of foreign tourists, which included a German and a Frenchman. I had read reports, possibly on the Internet, of similar things happening in Indonesia.