Friday, March 22, 2013

My Unexpected Birthday Trip to Singapore

As an American, living in Indonesia is a lot of fun, but there are a few annoyances. The biggest one is the government Immigration department. The rules are always changing, seemingly for no other reason than to confuse all of the participants involved. Therefore, companies that hire foreigners usually have to contract a local immigration liaison to keep up with these changes.

One of the requirements is that a foreigner must leave the country to reapply for his or her work permit. This is a yearly pain-in-the-butt. The closest country is Singapore, and that’s where most of us go. It can be a fun trip if you have the time, or a trip from hell if you have none. My visa was coming to an end on March 31, and I was expecting the fun trip.

Then my boss called.

“It’s Easter at the end of the month and all the airline-tickets are sold out. You have to go to Singapore NOW!”

“I can’t go now. I have to teach.”

“Then go on Thursday. Your day off. But you have to come back the same day. I don’t have anyone to replace you on Friday.”

Don’t you just love bosses?

To make a long story short, here is what I did yesterday:

Got up at 2:30 AM. Put a camera, umbrella and iPad into my backpack and walked out the door. Went to the alley shortcut to get to the street where the taxis are. It was locked up. Walked the long way (real long, about 15 minutes) to the main street. I’m standing on the corner in the dark when a man in a van drives slowly by and stops.

“Hey mister, where you go?”

“To the airport.”

“You come. I take you.” He looked at me, smiling hungrily.

“No thank you. I’ll take a taxi.”

“You come! You come! I take you airport!”

My imagination tells me that he’s an axe murderer. He really wants me to hop in. He wants it too much. The vehicle has no side windows. It’s scary and I walk away. But he follows me slowly in the murder van, blocking my view of the taxis that are zooming by.

“You come in! We go airport!”

I wonder what will make the best weapon: the camera, the umbrella or the iPad? Just as I’m deciding to use the entire backpack as a club, a Bluebird Taxi pulls over.


Scary man looks outraged and peels off. I hop into the cab.

“Where to?” asks the driver.

“To the airport. Take the toll-road.”

3:30 AM. The toll-road is dark blue and empty. To the average Indonesian, an empty road is a signal to step-on-the-gas, an invitation to go as fast as possible. But my driver wants to go one better; he wants to break the sound barrier. I will need no coffee this morning. I am wide eyed awake, praying that the wheels don’t fly off, as we thunder down the road at warp-speed towards Sukarno-Hatta International Airport.

And then I remember: today is my birthday! This revelation calms me down. I mean, how many people die on their birthdays, right? Besides, if I did have that misfortune, at least it would be symmetrical. My life would be neatly tied up in a memorable package. A poetic demise.

I didn’t even tell the driver to slow down.

Singapore via Lion Air. It’s a new plane but I don’t quite trust it because of the logo: an orange/red lion’s head with a crown on it. It looks like it was designed by 5th grader. Plus, they really squeeze the seats together, to cram in as many passengers as possible. My knees are pressed against the front seat for the entire 90 minute flight. But I have a window seat on a clear morning. We fly over the jungles of Sumatra and skip over the Malaccas Straight. Below are giant working ships from all over the world; oil tankers and freighters. Singapore comes into view; its apartment towers ring the shoreline like the walls of a castle.

I called our fixer, Mr. Raoul* as soon as I passed customs. He told me to meet him at the outside courtyard of the McDonalds on Orchid Road. When I got there, I found this man surrounded by other visa clients from all over the world. You see, the Indonesian immigration office requires all applicants to wait a few days for a visa. However, money changes everything, and if you pay a little extra to a Raou, you can have your visa by late afternoon. I don’t like this system; it has the feeling of a drug deal. It makes me feel sleazy. Indeed, it certainly looks sleazy- a large Indian man with a picnic table full of passports, papers and dollars. I give him my stuff and he tells me to meet him back here at 4:30 PM.

It is now 9:30 in the morning and I have no idea what to do. Being alone in a city where you know no one, makes you feel like a ghost. I float down the wide sidewalk of Orchard Road past the tall shopping malls, electronic billboards and tall shady trees. High-end clothing and electronic brands fill the shop windows. The place is spotless; even the pedestrians dress better than in other cities. There is nothing I want, other than to eat.

I spot a hawker stand, which is a patio type food garden featuring exotic foods. What to eat for breakfast? Noodles with pork dumplings fits the bill, along with that cup of coffee that I never had. The noodles are excellent and gone in minutes. I sit there content and nurse my coffee.

Then a pigeon shits on me.

It hits my hand and the coffee a mere six inches from my face, just as I was about to sip. There is no tissue paper, so I go back to the counter and ask for some.

“Oh, that happens all the time,” says the smiling counter girl. She gives me a wad of tissue and a new coffee. Singaporeans are nice.

When I get back to my table, I notice that my cell phone is buzzing. I check and see I’ve got over a dozen messages.

Oh yeah, it’s my birthday! Everyone is greeting me! I can feel the love! Now I have something to do! I’ll spend some time writing witty replies!

I send the first one to my good friend Lily.


Uh-oh, the message didn’t go through. Try again.


Hmm, I’ll just call her. I dial the number and get a voice recording in broken Indonesian English:

“We’re sorry, you are not allowed to make international calls with this number.”

Like HELL I’m not! I’ve been using this number for ten years to call from abroad! The service is called Matrix, and it’s bloody expensive but I have been paying it for the very reason that I can make calls from abroad. How dare you not work!

I became filled with Matrix-hate. The coffee soured in my belly as I sent tons of evil thoughts to the Matrix office via my mind. (May this tidal wave of bad karma one day explode their building into a zillion pieces.)

So what’s a ghost in the city to do? It was starting to get frickin’ hot. I couldn’t walk down the sidewalk all day.

Then a double-decker city tour bus drove by. Its sign said:


Why not? I had never tried that before. I paid, got on, and cruised in air conditioned comfort. The best thing about it was that the pass was good for all day. You could stop at any one of the attractions and get back on again at no extra charge. Bliss!

I took the tour 3 times.

The first time, I sat on the left of the bus. The second time, the right. On the third, I got brave and actually got out of the bus to visit some attractions. I saw the giant ferris wheel, the art museum, little India, and the wild new casino towers which have something that looks like a giant surf board on top. Mind you, I never actually entered any of these attractions; I just loitered like a bum and took pictures until the next bus came by. I did give the Botanical Gardens a try for about 15 minutes, but who wants to sweat in a humid rainforest when it’s 1000 degrees outside?

A revelation of sorts hit me on that third tour; Southeast Asia is exploding with economic growth right now. Singapore is building and reshaping itself into the city of the future. It is Star Trek come to life. I see the same things happening in Jakarta and Manila. Futuristic, gravity-defying towers are growing into the sky. Blossoming like flowers overnight. Enormous wealth is starting to be seen. A rapidly growing middle class is rising and buying. Their children are smart, ambitious and aggressive. New Asian art forms are being born. There seems to be no bounds to the speed and experimentation of this new age. And unlike America and Europe: There is no fear.

I am not jealous, but it makes me want to run back home. Not to Jakarta, but to Jacksonville, Florida, where nothing changes. But that is just me. For you fearless souls out there, look east and maybe join them in this brave new world.

It is their hour.

Oh, and I got back to Jakarta at 10 PM. The plane was late. Some things will never change.

*Name changed to protect the guilty. Click on photos to see larger image.


  1. What an experience, J. Lucky u came back safe and buzzing. Happy belated bday, grumps-J.. kkkekekekkeke.. :D

  2. I'm still buzzing. Maybe it's the water in my ears.