Officially this day will mark the beginning of the return leg of the expedition. There is undoubtedly some disappointment in not being able to drive the car into Batam, and therefore, into Indonesia. After the experience of ‘importing’ the car into Singapore I understood why there are no car ferries linking Singapore, or even Malaysia. The obvious means by which Singapore makes it difficult and costly for foreign vehicles from entering the country is proof enough. The country uses taxation to even limit ownership of private vehicles in the country. Add to that the cost of using the roads, the economic discrimination against private road users is complete. But, to be fair, the network of public transportation, both bus and MRT, is so good that it is pointless owning private transport. And investment in these is ongoing.
Last evening I had confirmed the open ticket for Singapore by the 8.20 am ferry. Check in was scheduled an hour early. Just as we were ready to leave home for the Batam Centre ferry terminal Shoju and family visited to bid farewell. Ajo, Susan and Sania dropped me at the ferry terminal. It is never easy to take leave of people who had become closer than family in less than 72 hours. Queue at the immigration was long considering the weekend factor. Boarding didn’t take long and I occupied a seat in the open deck. While cigarette smoke was a problem I traded that for the lovely views of the receding profile of Batam. at such times a question that surfaces is whether I will ever be back anytime to experience the land and people yet again. I have left behind wonderful friends and strong relationships. A tear dropped involuntarily as I wondered when I would meet them again.
The ferry ride back to Singapore was enjoyable. The waters got busier as it neared Singapore. Vessels waiting to get to harbour and those leaving increased considerably as the ferry neared Singapore. The imposing skyline of Singapore, Sentosa Island and the Port of Singapore Authority container terminal kept me riveted till the ferry docked at the Harbour front terminal. The experience in the Ferry Terminal Immigration is something that does not do Singapore proud. The number of lanes was not adequate to handle the tourists who queued up to complete the formalities. The matter was compounded by the ‘plastic’ and impersonal handling of ‘customers’ that were totally out of character with a state that promotes tourism. The 90 minutes that I spent in the immigration centre was sheer avoidable torture. I was told a true story related to the Singapore ferry terminal immigration that happened some time ago. A senior Indonesian immigration official and his large family contingent were handled rudely by Singapore immigration officials, apparently because they were talking loudly in the immigration enclosure. A few days later Indonesian immigration made it a policy that arriving tourists must not talk loudly in the immigration enclosure. To bring this home to tourists they put up photos of a lady sealing her lips with the index finger. A few Singaporeans who violated the instruction were asked to return to Singapore denying them permission to enter Indonesia in Batam. Policies, rules and regulations have interesting backgrounds!
I was exhausted by the time I got out of the ferry terminal. I headed straight to Mary Mount MRT where Sreekanth came to pick me up. Lunch consisted of chicken rice at an eatery close to where Sreekanth stays. I loved the nourishing soup that accompanied the main dish. Very close was located the Church of the Holy Spirit where Sreekanth took me to find out the timings of service, the next day being Sunday. Since starting out on the expedition I have not been able to participate in a full service on any Sunday. I did visit a few churches to worship, but that was all. Buut now, I had the opportunity to fulfil the Sunday obligation.
Robin Woods was my roommate when I was at the London School of Economics in 1995-96. Along with Monojeeth Pal we lived for a year in a three bed room in Passfield Hall, one of the residential halls of LSE. I remember him as being very studious and extremely engaging. He did a graduate course in Accounting and taught English in Spain during vacations. His parents worked and lived in Singapore even though they hailed from Britain. I had lost touch with Robin after LSE. A few months back I ‘discovered’ him on Facebook through a friend request. We reconnected and he told me that we could meet up in case I went to Singapore. And that’s when the South East Asian Expedition happened.
Robin invited me over to his apartment this day to share dinner and I was happy for it. On the way to his apartment in City Square Residences we caught up a bit of the 19 years that we had not been in touch. I spent a lovely evening with the family; Robin’s wonderful wife, Claudia, and sons Richard and Mark never made me feel that I was meeting them for the first time. Michael is an out and out extrovert while Richard is the strong, silent type. Claudia is from Mexico and she, along with Robin, gave me an insight into the trouble of travelling in Mexico now due to the drug problem and related violence. The inputs are valuable, for I am gathering information to make a comprehensive journey through South America. They were quite sure that it would be a major hassle if I did not have a basic knowledge of Spanish if I wanted to undertake that trip. The view of Singapore’s main attractions from Robin’s 20th floor apartment is something to die for. He patiently explained to me the buildings, streets and tourist attractions and I felt as if my Singapore tour was complete. I took leave of the family after a couple of helpings of the wonderful cake that Claudia produced. She did make the cardinal mistake of asking if I cared for another helping!
Singapore would not be what it is without Mustafa. I had been completely bowled over by the shopping experience when I visited Singapore for the first time in 2000 with Beena. To relive the experience I stepped into the complex and was engulfed by an ocean of humanity. The complex has grown in size considerably in the past decade and the products on display have multiplied. I can safely say that every Indian living in Singapore and Indian tourist to Singapore shopped in Mustafa. It was impossible to move around without making body contact with another person or ‘accidentally’ eavesdropping on conversations in Malayalam, Hindi or Tamil. Bargains are many in the complex and shopping carts are overflowing resulting in long queues at the checkout points. I looked for a particular type of stroller bag and Nescafe Gold coffee. I did not get the bargains I was looking for and went back home after walking around a bit to get a ‘feel’ of the place. I had been told that Mustafa money changer gives the best foreign exchange deals, and after my transaction I was sure of it.
By the time I got back home Sreekanth had returned from a party he had been to. The night wore on with cans of chilled Tiger Beer and lively conversation. By the time we went to bed it was well past midnight and I had to be in church for the service at 9 am the next day.