Semi-Quarantine in Singapore
The Best Laid Plans of Men and Microbes
By Joshua Samuel Brown, Special for Dave’s Travel Corner
Doctor Eung shone his light into my partner’s inflamed right ear canal.
“You say you flew yesterday, is it?”
Stephanie nodded grimly, her face swollen in several places.
“Better you had not,” said the doctor.
The illness had hit a few days earlier, caught from an old friend in Brisbane who’d have been better off staying in bed than playing tour guide. By the time we got to Newcastle, a pretty little thumb of a town surrounded by water on three sides, Stephanie was in rough shape. I was still fine. I toured the town solo while she slept in the hotel, rallying only in the afternoon to make her appointment at the local university, a meeting that’d been about 30% of our reason for the two-and-a-half week trip to Australia. She collapsed the minute we returned to the hotel, a brief respite as our plans for the night had been dictated by a morning flight from Sydney.
“My ears hurt,” Stephanie had said on the Greyhound between Newcastle and Sydney.
I felt none too good myself the next morning as I left our Sydney flophouse through the lobby (which also functioned as a bar) for coffee. We donned surgical masks in deference to fellow travelers on the plane and were both in wretched shape when we landed in Singapore nine hours later.
Dr. Eung repeated, shining the light down Stephanie’s throat.
“When is your next flight?”
“52 hours, give or take.”
The doctor shrugged.
“Better if you could postpone by a day.”
Dr. Eung diagnosed influenza, adding that the flight had slightly damaged Stephanie’s right ear and it would be best if she could return before our flight on Saturday morning to make sure the return to Taipei wouldn’t risk further, potentially permanent damage. He examined me more quickly, confirming I was fighting the same bug. He prescribed a series of medications including a heavy antibiotic for Stephanie and a slightly less-threatening antibiotic for me. He also gave us both medicated eye drops for conjunctivitis, otherwise known by its dreaded childhood name, pink eye.
I paid the bill, amazingly low by US standards but quite high compared to Taiwan, all the while kicking myself for having only purchased travel insurance for the Australian part of the journey. Snakebite, sunstroke, koala chlamydia, I remember thinking, listing the possibilities for the Australia leg while dismissing the notion of needing insurance in Singapore.
Moments later, we were dodging construction crews on Marine Parade Road, eyes crusted over with conjunctivitis. At least I knew what to call the affliction. That was certainly worth something.
We’d had big plans for Singapore, the last leg on our much needed 3-week escape from Taiwan trip: Romantic strolls along the quays, seeking out gluten-free options for Stephanie at a few of my favorite hawker centers, a trip to the bizarre Haw Par Villa. I knew Singapore intimately, having written two guidebooks for Lonely Planet about the place. Stephanie had never been, and I was looking forward to seeing the Lion City through her eyes.
So much for plans, I thought as we returned to our comfortable room at the Grand Mercure, where we hastily swallowed our pills and applied our medicated eye drops.
“Let me boil up some water,”
I said, and Stephanie mumbled without commitment and collapsed on the bed.
I spent the next hour or so sipping tea, pacing the room and staring out at the massive project in progress that had turned Marine Parade Road into a construction site as far as the eye could see. Ever now and then Stephanie would let out a dry, hacking cough, her condition no doubt receiving little help from the air conditioning sucking all the moisture from the air. We had it down low, but turning it off was not an option.
Around noon the phone rang.
“Mister Brown, this is Shane, assistant manager of the Grand Mercure. Would it be convenient for us to have our meeting in the coffee shop?”
In all the medical drama, I’d forgotten about the other major plan I’d made for our 3-day Singapore excursion, namely doing a vaguely-defined feature article about Joo Chiat, the neighborhood over which the hotel towered like a sentinel.
“Sure,” I said. “I should warn you though, I’ve come down with something of a bug, so probably best not to hug when we meet up.”
“That’s fine,” Shane replied. “See you at one.”
Singaporeans aren’t all that big on business meeting hugging.
In the lobby coffee shop, Shane and I chatted about all the changes occurring in this once-relatively quiet section of Singapore, the largest of which I’d mistaken in my flu-addled state for routine construction.
“The new MRT line is going to be great for Joo Chiat. It will link the area directly to the airport, and to the Central Business District as well. Joo Chiat has a lot of culture, but it hasn’t always been an inaccessible area.”
I ask Shane if he was concerned that Joo Chiat might lose some of its charm.
“Well, in my opinion, the Singapore tourism board has always thought long term. And Joo Chiat has always had a strong place in the heart of Singaporeans.”
Though obviously partisan towards the neighborhood, the Assistant Manager had a point. When casual tourists think of Singapore, often as not they picture the towering steel and glass of the CBD, the riverfront Quays, the malls of Orchard Road. By and large, these are the spots that have been the driving engines of Singapore’s mighty tourism engine.
But it’s Joo Chiat that gives most Singaporeans the warm fuzzies. Telling a Singaporean you meet on the road that you’ve eaten at the La Pa Sat hawker center (the big eight-armed brass dome downtown Singapore that’s been written about by nearly every travel writer in the business) will mark you instantly as a tourist. But casually letting slip that you’re a fan of the Old Airport Road hawker center on Joo Chiat’s outer fringe elicits a different response, letting your newly-met Singaporean friend know that you’ve done a deep dive into their country’s culture.
Shane didn’t need to belabor the point. Though the construction was obviously an untidy blemish in an otherwise tidy section of a city well-known for its orderly character, it was unlikely that management of the Grand Mercure was too stressed by this temporary inconvenience. Once finished, the Thomson–East Coast line won’t just connect the neighborhood to the airport; it’ll also connect it to Singapore’s already outstanding Metro system, thus giving visitors all the more reason to base themselves in the island state’s culturally appealing but hitherto slightly inconvenient from a transportation point Joo Chiat neighborhood. And the Grand Mercure would benefit mightily from the arraignment.
Aware that I was under the weather, the manager took me on a truncated tour of the hotel, showing me glass-encased works of art including old puppets dating back to the days when puppetry was a prime entertainment form from Beijing to the Malacca Straits.
“I hope you and your partner feel better,”
Shane said, ending the tour in the VIP lobby overlooking the sea.
“If there’s anything I can do, just call me.”
I headed back down to the room and stared out the window as Stephanie coughed in the cool, dry air. After a few hours, I’d grown bored of the view and headed out.
“Bring back Hainan Chicken Rice,”
mumbled Stephanie from her sick bed.
I left to stroll around the neighborhood I called home for a season, if the term season even applies in Singapore. Walking down Joo Chiat Road, I noted with some sadness that Tian Tian Hainan Chicken Rice was gone, replaced by what looked to be some sort of a theme pub. There seemed to be more pubs in general, and a few more massage parlors with bored looking Vietnamese women sitting out front beneath the famous five foot way underpasses of the colorful shophouses. I stopped at Dunman Food Centre, one of the smaller hawker centers, and got a few sticks of otak-otak, a grilled fish paste true ownership of which Malaysia and Singapore have fought over for years.
But the Dunham Hainan Chicken Rice stall was closed, it’s photos hanging tantalizingly over a shuttered shop.
I headed back down the block, past shophouse restaurants offering food I was in no mood to eat and shophouse pubs offering drinks that wouldn’t mix well with antibiotics, hooking a right on East Coast Road past more colorful shops, restaurants and stores before finding a stall selling Hainan Chicken Rice in the basement of the Katong Shopping Centre. It had to be HCR, comfort food for me and something I knew wouldn’t be wheat-tainted for Stephanie.
Double order in hand, I headed back to the GM as the sun went down. Planned nighttime activities were naturally out of the question. We fell asleep in front of the Plasma screen TV watching Avengers: Age of Ultron.
I was fine the next morning, but Stephanie was still rough. After watching me pace around the room for an hour or two she suggested I leave so she could get a final day’s rest. So I did, taking buses at random until I wound up in the CBD at the very same spots I’d mocked tourists for earlier; Lau Pa Sat for some Pie Tee, Clarke Quay to gawk at downtown Singapore. Without Stephanie, my heart wasn’t into it. I visited a couple of friends for abridged versions of promised visits with Stephanie, stopped by a Watsons for cough drops and earplugs, and headed back to the Grand Mercure by way of an expensive supermarket for our final dinner.
Returning to the hotel, Stephanie was sitting up in bed on her phone, looking better though hardly chipper.
“I think I can fly tomorrow,” she said. “I just need to chew gum during the flight.”
We ate dinner in the room, imported rice crackers, cheese and peanut butter from the market next door with leftover Hainan Chicken Rice from the previous night. I suggested a walk around the neighborhood, nothing too taxing. At least Stephanie could say she saw something of Singapore during our three days here. We walked over to the Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple, which was just closing. A robed caretaker was washing the sidewalk down with a hose.
“May we come in quickly?”
I asked the caretaker, and he nodded reluctantly.
“We will close soon.”
We took off our shoes and walked through the Hindu temple, floors still warm from the heat of the day.
“I wish we had more time in Singapore,” Stephanie said.
I assured her we could return. The Lion City is a quick flight from Taipei, relatively speaking.
Though coughing less, Stephanie was clearly not yet at 100%. Not wanting to push it, we went back to the hotel and packed up our bags (which had somehow managed to explode despite our not having needed anything from them) so as to be ready for the AM flight.
We hit the airport the next morning bright and early for an eleven AM flight back to Taipei, and after going through customs we made a beeline to the nearest airport convenience store and searched high and low for the gum rack.
“Excuse me, where’s the gum?”
The clerk stared at me blankly for a moment.
“This is Singapore. Chewing gum is not permitted.”
Several hours later, we landed in Taipei, the both of us only slightly worse for the wear. The dried guava slices we both chewed throughout the flight were a poor alternative.
Joshua Samuel Brown (www.josambro.com; twitter @josambro) has co-authored 12 guidebooks for Lonely Planet. His latest book, co-authored by Stephanie Huffman (currently fully recovered) is called Formosa Moon, and is available at finer bookstores around the globe. Click here to purchase Formosa Moon on Amazon.
They live in Taiwan.