From Little Italy to Little India…

I want to start out by saying that I absolutely adore my neighborhood back in San Diego, and for countless reasons. I love being downtown without having to feel like I’m in the middle of a metropolitan mess. The proximity to the harbor, local watering holes, and parks for my canine child, are all aspects that I pine for when somewhere else. That being said, these comforts have nothing to do with the marketting moniker of “Little Italy”. Having had  the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the real Italia, I’ve found the LittleItalyTM tagline to be a bit annoying, with its substandard “italian” food, heavily marketted “cultural” fairs in its Disney-like piazzas, the ever present odor emanating from Fillippi’s Pizza Grotto/Cultural Crisis Center, and wannabe mafioso types. Sure, there is the handful of older Italian men who hang out at Amici park, play bocce, and curse each other in Sicilian, but in the end VeryLittleItaly San Diego is as authentic as Nicholas Cage Copolla’s accent in Captain Correlli’s Mandolin.

img_3283Singapore’s Little India is a completely different story altogether. Having arrived on JAL at 12:30 AM, I was still very much blind to my surroundings on the taxi ride in from the airport. As always, the first night of hostel life took a bit of getting used to. The hard twin bed, the air-conditoning unit that is either completely off (the weather reminds me of New Orleans in August) or blasting an Arctic wind into the back of your neck, all leading to the restless and disoriented non-sleep that comes when your body passes the point of being exhausted after not having truly rested for 48 hours. Realizing that any sort of sleep is just not going to happen, I woke up at about 7:00 AM for my first (free!) hostel breakfast of two pieces of toast and orange water; using the word “juice” here would be far too generous.

img_3281However, within thirty seconds of stepping out the front door of Footprints Hostel, I completely forgot and forgave the previous 48 hours of airplane food, cramped seating, and sheer exhaustion. Previous to this trip, my only forays into Indian culture have consisted of a handfull of substandard Indian meals (being topped by one in Prague, of all places), technical support phone calls with Dell computer, reading the book Shantaram, and watching Slumdog Millionaire. So, before stepping out of those swinging double doors, it would be fair to say that I was culturally ignorant to one fifth of the world’s population. Within one block, I was overtaken by the most amazing mixture of odors; countless sweet and pungent spices that I only hope to someday be able to identify,  recently handmade floral garlands, and the light background smell of lingering incense. Walking through the cramped covered sidewalks of Little India, the odors combine with the constant pumping of Indian pop music and the  colors of an ages-old culture that, having never witnessed anything similar, overwhelmed me almost to the point of tears. If it had been any more than 8 blocks to the subway or MRT station, I might have seized up in a complete neural overload.

But, this is only the beginning of Singapore’s countless contrasts. Upon entering the MRT station, one leaves ethnic immersion only to enter technological bliss. All of Singapore’s mass transit runs on EZlink magnetic cards…a concept that is so brilliantly efficient. I bought my EZLink card at the Little India MRT station for $15 SGD (Singapore Dollars), $5 being the deposit for the card that is returned to you when you turn in the card at the end of your stay. To use the card, you slap it on a little magnetic disk at both ends of your transit, and the amount used is deducted right from the card, which can subsequently be recharged as needed. What an amazing contrast to the lines of people fiddling with change to board collectivos in Buenos Aires (if they can even GET change), let alone the completely useless public transportation offered in San Diego.

img_2470Getting off at the Chinatown stop was like being transported to another country where there were many more “firsts” in store for me. This time, it was my first Buddhist temple. Now, I could go on and on about the beauty of the temple, how it is dedicated to the very first Chinese immigrants that came to Singapore who were economically forced to live ten people to a small cubicle-like dwelling, and the complete sense of enveloping serenity. Not to sound insensitive, but I’m sure there will be a story and a photograph for every Buddhist temple that I will see over the course of these four months. In the case of Singapore, however, my interest lies more in the fact that within 50 yards of this location of extreme Chinese cultural importance, I was able to see an equally beautiful Hindu temple (another first for me), and an humble Islamic mosque. And therein lies the epitome of my fascination with Singapore. In an era that has been corrupted by constant fingerpointing between religions, each claiming the other to be the cause for the world’s problems, Singapore’s real story is how Malay, European, Chinese, Arab, and Indian cultures, while still retaining their own identities, have come  to create a society that transcends petty differences, and instead have worked together to build a modern day socio-technological miracle. Yes, there are rules. Yes, the fines and penalties are stiff for littering, smoking, and crimes against others. But all in all, people here are happy and extremely proud of what they’ve created, and by the looks of the countless construction cranes, what they will continue to create. It is easily the most culturally and technologically advanced city that I have ever visited, although I imagine that Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo will be eye-openers in their own right.


After its amazing juxtaposition between cultures and technology, there is the Singapore Zoo. Even though San Diego boasts one of the largest collection of animals, I was quite please with how natural the Singapore Zoo looks and feels, and is the first zoo that I’ve been too where the enclosed animals actually seem happy, probably because in most cases they are surrounded by flora that closely resembles their actual environment. I remember looking at what I thought was the orangutan enclosure, but then upon looking directly above me, realized that I was inside the enclosure, which consisted of a natural tree canopy with orangutans hanging playfully just meters above me. In addition to the zoo, there is the theme-parkish island of Sentosa, complete with manufactured beaches, a cable car that ascends to what I’m guessing is a half mile above the causeway between mainland Singapore and Sentosa, and rides for the kiddies. Inimg_2516 my opinion, Sentosa’s real draw is the heavily armed Fort Siloso, that was built to protect itself from the Japanese empire. Unfortunately, the Japanese invaded Singapore by land over the Malay border, and the guns of Siloso were only used to blow up Singapore’s off-shore island oil depot before Japanese forces could confiscate it. In what I find to be an extraordinary historical juxtaposition, you can sit on the gun emplacement facing the current oil depot while a loudspeaker reenacts its original self-destruction; the view all the while cluttered with scattered tanker and cargo ships preparing to enter Singapore’s modern day harbor. You can also enter the exact bunker where the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese, an event that is still considered to be the British military’s greatest tragedy and retold with lifesize wax models.

I am wholeheartedly glad that I planned to start my escapades here in Singapore, as it serves as the living Cliff Notes to all the cultures I am sure to grow fond of over the coming months. But, Singapore is small, and although it is an amazing place for those that live and work here, one can only explore so much before wanting to move on…not to mention, things are very expensive here compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. Luckily, nobody in Southeast Asia seems to wear larger than a size 28 waist, otherwise I would have done far more damage on my credit card.

My final night in Singapore before heading of to Jakarta tomorrow will involve eating once more in one of the many hawker centers (food courts on steroids) and having the token Singapore Sling at the place of its birth: the Raffles hotel. I have daily thoughts about all the people back home that I miss dearly…PLEASE comment and let me know what’s new so that I’m not tempted to perform my own Colonel Kurtzian vanishing act. 🙂




~ by parlatorepazzo on March 4, 2009.

2 Responses to “From Little Italy to Little India…”

  1. Nice work. Looking forward to your journey!

  2. Just be aware of your surroundings, Master Ryannnnnn

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