I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. ― Beryl Markham, West with the Night
Jaffa tells me his name means orange–very easy to remember. His face is tawny and weathered with age, yet he has an verve that dwarves mine. He’s talkative, Jaffa, because of years spent being a limousine driver, where he made his living by making his home a story he’d tell to tourists of means and interest. Now he’s a taxi driver, a transition of which he’s slowly and painfully, become accustomed. His is a vocation that requires speed, dexterity, and silence. People want only to move between points on a map, and Jaffa affectionately pats his GPS, his girlfriend, who speaks to him when no one else will.
Later I’ll read that Jaffa’s name has roots in Israel and Palestine, and is more recently known as a seedless fruit with tough skin, perfect for export. Leaving. But I don’t know this yet and I spend my first hour in Singapore trying to stay awake from two days of travel, while trying to fill his quiet spaces with the only gift I know of: words.
Jaffa comes from a small village outside of Singapore, and there was a time when he could’ve afforded a home for $15,000. Now he points to the condominiums clouding the sky and whistles. One, two, three million. He tells me that it’s a different time. I ask him a few perfunctory questions, but what he really wants to talk about a fine he’s been issued. Last week he stopped in an intersection to pick up an elderly woman. If you’ve ever been to Singapore you’ll know that taxis don’t halt in the middle of city streets, rather people have to queue up in designated stands. Yet Jaffa breaks this law because he tells me that the woman was frail and aren’t you supposed to help someone when they’re in need? Tell me, he says, wasn’t stopping the right thing to do?
Of course it was. However, the law disagrees. A CCTV camera caught Jaffa and he’s been fined $150 (a princely sum for him) and three points on his licence (24 points revokes a license). His only recourse is to appeal to his minister (think of a minister as a supervisor) who will plead Jaffa’s case on his behalf.
Sometimes I get frustrated, Jaffa confides. Sometimes I want to leave.
I know the feeling. Yes, but not really. But almost.
I wanted to start over completely, to begin again as new people with nothing of the past left over. I wanted to run away from who we had been seen to be, who we had been… It’s the first thing I think of when trouble comes — the geographic solution. Change your name, leave town, disappear, make yourself over. What hides behind that impulse is the conviction that the life you have lived, the person you are, is valueless, better off abandoned, that running away is easier than trying to change things, that change itself is not possible. ― Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature
There was a time when I thought the definition of love was a house once brightly lit and warm falling to blight. All the lights extinguished, the fire gone out, and you’re left with the cold, empty spaces you once so joyfully inhabited. There was a time when I used the words love and leave interchangeably. Because people always leave. Because lights invariably burn bright, flicker, and fade out. Never did I think that leaving bears its own light, that the passage from one place to another isn’t an end but a continuation. A cloud shifting. A movement of light. Never did I believe that every exit being an entrance somewhere else. And the places and people you once desired become memories you rewind and play like old movies.
I think about Jaffa’s name, its origin, and it means both exit and entry. This is how my trip begins–the realization that I’m oscillating between two states. I haven’t quite settled and my days have come to feel like a nervous reverberation. I’m here, but not really, and you know how it is.
And it only occurred to me, only today, that I’m in a place that’s been known as a crossroads.
I started my second day in Singapore with an extensive education of the Peranakan. In Malay, “Peranakan” means “child of” or “born of” and is used to refer to people of mixed ethnic origins. Peranakans in Singapore are Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Eurasian. This is a world of color, of travel, of being itinerant and finally laying down one’s roots.
We started our tour at The Spice Gardens at Fort Canning Park, home to hundreds of spices and plants–used for local cuisine as well as medicinal purposes (DYK mixing a tablespoon of cinnamon and tumeric in a glass of water is good for joint pain, or that lemongrass is a natural mosquito repellant?). The rain came down in sheets today so the plants were fragrant (the vanilla, thai basil, mint, lemongrass were especially heady) and we learned of the origins of Peranakan cooking.
The sky cleared and we made our way to Kim Choo Kueh Chang, home to the Nonya rice dumplings packed with sweet meats and tender rice, sweet glutinous desserts (I never thought I’d be into sweets fashioned from rice, but I stand corrected because I feasted on palm sugar dusted with coconut and rainbow cakes made of rice and natural dyes). Aside from the tubs of homemade cookies and tins of cakes, Kim Choo Kueh is also home to rooms adorned in the Peranakan style so we not only got to view a traditional kitchen, but finery a bride would adorn–from the vibrant reds and hot fuschias to her bejeweled shoes.
After, we spent an hour in the Peranakan Museum, where we encountered a fascinating display of Peranakan costume, embroidery, beadwork, jewelry, porcelin, furniture, and craftwork–providing insight and lore into a captivating culture. To be candid, I entered the museum with trepidation–either I’d be fascinated or bored to tears, but the museum was cultivated so simply, richly and beautifully and made for a great story. Upon entry, we were given a piece of paper, “Auspicious Symbols”, of which we’d insert in various handstamps as we made passage through the rooms. Many of the bowls were painted with insects to symbolize an abundance of food just as insects fill a garden in good weather. Butterflies festooned wedding beds–a symbol of fertility. We saw phoenixs everywhere, and our guide, Foo, told us that whenever a phoenix appears, good news will follow. I think about this as I admire blue and white porcelain bowls and Foo jokes that I cleave to things of the dead. While pink porcelain celebrates birthdays and color toasts abundance, the color blue depicts mourning, loss. You see it in the gowns women wear and how they have to replace their gold jewelry with silver. You see it in the bowls covering dark wood tables.
I spent the morning with a rich, itinerant people and their cycle of life.
By midday it was hot (the weather here averages in the 90s and is mostly humid, but oddly a lot more temperate than New York), and I broke from my group to wander around Singapore on my own. While researching great places to chow in Singapore, I discovered Seth Lui’s blog and City Nomads Singapore, and so far both sites are on point.
While I’m no longer able to eat ALL OF THE PASTRIES (these are woeful, gluten-cautious times, people), I made it a point to stop by Artisan Boulangerie Co. (flaky almond croissants like whoa) and Freshly Baked by Le Bijoux (you need to buy all the butter cakes and I’m serious about this–I’m presently noshing on a lemon cake in my hotel room as I type this with greasy fingers and I have no regrets as Edith Piaf so sagely sang) on Killiney Road. I also stumbled upon Real Food, a 4,000sq foot space dedicated to organic, local fare. It’s a bookstore, a market, a restaurant, a coffee shop and it is GOOD.
Candidly, all of this greatness was a salve for the epic disappointment that was Din Thai Fung, a Michelin-starred Taiwanese dumpling chain. I’ve been to Taiwan and the dumplings at Din Thai Fung don’t even come close to the greatness I experienced on the streets of Taipei and Taichung. Don’t get me wrong, the wrapping was tender, the soup flavorful, but these dumplings were lightweight compared to their Taiwanese counterparts. This joint came highly recommended but friends whom I love and respect, so know that I was a tad disappointed. If anyone has recommendations for great dim sum (I’m hitting up Seth’s recommended spots and Chinatown tomorrow)
I spent the rest of the day wandering Orchard Road and Victoria and Bugis Junction. For hours I was trying to find an equivalent for Singapore and the only city that comes close is Melbourne, possibly Barcelona. You have vast newness and wealth juxtaposed with the old. Thoroughfares and quays. I wandered around, watching people eat ice cream on white bread (!!!), saw numerous signs of cows in parks and learned that New York may be the only place where people naturally jaywalk.
After nearly ten hours of exploring the city by foot (and losing an umbrella in the process), I came home and collapsed into bed. I think about home and leaving it. I think about the lease that’s taking forever to make its way to my inbox. I think about a home laid out to bear and not yet assembled and packed. I think about being in a city known for both entries and exists. I think about how it feels to occupy the in-betweens in a new way, in a different light.
Light moves. Clouds shift. View adjusts.
Follow my exploits on Instagram, if you’re inclined. And yes, that’s me in the photo up top–me and my wiry greys.