Saturday, November 3, 2007

Pulau Ubin Experience

Good excursion today/yesterday: big chill touristy vibe for everyone to kickback and gabble. Met at 7:30 am at the Robertson Hotel lobby where the boys were breakfasting before the bus bay.

Departure at 8ish, with some delay because Naeem had zonked himself out on Nyquil and was systematically slamming down the phone during wake-up call. Arrival at Changi jetty at 8:45ish, rendez-vous with KS, Tay Tong, Brian and Ka Fai.

Bumboating. Whee!

Pulau Ubin is 10 min from Singapore’s central island: depopulated by government decree wit aims to build it into a Sentosaesque megaresort, it was suddenly okayed for preservation on the discovery of invaluable ecodiversity in its Chek Jawa district. One up for the conservationists.

Biking for $6, all-day. Whee whee whee! Van for the squeamish.

Breakfast at 10ish at Kampung Sungei Durian, one of the older Malay-dominated villages that occupied the centre of the island. Left standing is a 200 year-old stilt house with its attap roof replaced with zinc (yes, 200, the owner Kamaria traced her family history back to a Riau fisherman who migrated here in 1803). Kamariah Samsiah & family serve us lontong, vegetable curry, agar-agar, curry puffs, hot hibiscus tea with ice cubes. We sit on the floor and munch, while they describe the history of the house: this is modified floor, this is the hole in the floor where we shat as children and this is the hidden trapdoor to the roof where we played hide-and-seek when the Japanese invaded.

Kamariah takes us on a walk to investigate herbs: citronella, cashew leaf, passionfruit. On the way to her old swimming hole, we pass the disco ball under the tree which her father installed: as the town barber, he would instruct people to gaze into its glittering mirrors while he shaved them bare.

We’ve been joined by Norah, a niece who works as a stewardess for Cathay Pacific and Mali, a cousin who works as a technician for QANTAS in Melbourne. Mali tells me how they used to hunt monitor lizards and sell them at the Chinese village at the jetty; there used to be a whole community here, huts everywhere, children running and laughing. Now even the eponymous durian trees are getting older and older; no-one plants new ones anymore.

We stop at the pavilion near the Cookie Monster statue. In the grass, the artists see a wild boar, but the documenters are too startled to capture the moment.

Back at the house, Kamariah’s sister Ruqxana hosts her Kampung Cooking Class: DIY butter prawns, sambal belacan and nasi kerabu, chopped and pestled from the gatherings of the jungle itself. Herbs galore: lemongrass shallots turmeric galangal coconut lime leaf coriander basil mint noni semangkok ulam raja Asian pennyworth red chilli garlic grated coconut gula melaka tamarind torch ginger blossom salt and pepper to taste. Minced and medleyed into white rice. The best thing, she says, is that every bite you take is slightly different. Four or five to a wok; our cooking is amazingly effective (the recipes are idiotproof anyway), our sambal paste ends up chunky and oversugared but we like it better as if it’s chilli jam.

Over ice kacang we begin to talk shop: copyright and culturehacking, heritage and fetish. I am personally often terrified of opening my mouth lest I interrupt the exchange of intelligent ideas among men and women so gifted that they switch from issues of intellectual crisis to so how is your new girlfriend is she alright? Or is that what we always do – never quite dividing the personal and the political, the heart and the mind, the manifesto and the valentine?

Mali decides to lead a group of enthused artists for a swim before our featured guest arrives. Five minutes after they set off on their bikes, the dark sky cracks and pisses on us all: sweet thunder where there should have been maddening one o’clock sun. I nap in the hut. The swimmers come back, clothes marinated with rainwater, with reports of a beach paved with litter: Kamariah’s household gifts them with sarongs to wear while their trousers dry.

At 2:30ish, our guest comes: Dr Alan Collman, big A*Star biotechnologist, stem cell boffin and genius genesmith of such creations as Dolly the doppelganger sheep. More about that later.

Cyclic progression up to the Temple of the German Girl, Nadu Guniang, a keramat shrine for the spirit of a young madchen who lived on Ubin with her parents on a coffee plantation till the break of World War I, when she took refuge to hide from the Brit soldiers and kena fall off a cliff and become superlotterynumbergoddess: cute trick. Very Theatreworks artefact, her shrine: syncretic fusion of a Barbiedoll idol before an urn of decaying hair and deutschmarks surrounded by tuapehkong icons in songkoks and Kuanyin and Sun Wukong and sacrifices of angpows and lipsticks. Evidently I didn’t make a sufficient donation of libatory oil: got hopelessly lost and mud-spattered on the way back to the jetty; only saved when I spied Mich and Tadasu spinning in steady sync on their tandem bicycle in the distance.

Returned the bikes. Bums sore, sipped beer and baby coconut water. Talked more culture and politics and domesticity. Dinner at 6:30pm at the Live Seafood Restaurant. The artists ooooh and aaaah over decent but unspectacular zi char favourites: or luah omelette cut into quadrants, stewed cauliflower with glass noodles, crisp baby octopus, lemon chicken, small perch. I hope this will happen in Ho Chi Minh City: that everything unfamiliar will be zingfully delightful for its novelty; yowzah; right now I feel guilty that they’ve been eating such mediocre food in their last few days that this bunch on paper plates seems ambrosia.

Sumei and KC and guests arrive by bumboat. Presentations. Moreaboutthatlater.

Brian and I are hectored by a precociously self-possessed Mandarin-speaking 6-year-old named... wait for it... ROYSTON. He's the son of one of the stall-holders. He's actually named after Royston Tan, I think.

We’re done at 11pm. Woozy, exhausted; trudge back in the darkness to the jetty for a final boat ride home. Keng Sen and the others step out onto the poop to take in the breeze.

Bus back to the hotel. Me, I have a three-leg series of buses back home. Also discover that I lost my handphone in Kampung Sungei Durian. Scheisse. The jungle takes its due.

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