Big Trouble in Little Singapore

I could hardly believe what was happening in front of my travel weary, bloodshot eyes.

One man was holding my passport and firing questions at me as fast as I could answer them. Meanwhile, his two assistants were reaching into every one of my pockets and piling the contents into plain view in front of everyone in line at customs.  Even my wadded up handful of toilet paper (always kept handy in a cargo pocket) was torn apart in case it concealed something. I even had to open my mouth so they could check under my tongue, but luckily all other body cavities were ignored — at least for now.

“Follow me, Mr. Rodgers.”  I could tell by the tone of his voice that I should probably do exactly that.

For the second time on this trip (the first was when I overstayed my visa in Indonesia), I found myself being led to a side office full of uniformed officials. A sign on the door read “Border Enforcement.” Not a happy place for a traveler to find himself in any country in the world! I cast one last glance over my shoulder at all the other smiling people crossing into Singapore, and with a sigh stepped into a den of bureaucratic hell to wait for the worst.

My day started out like many have in the past three years, with a big move and no idea how to get somewhere. I don’t have a Lonely Planet or map, but it is relatively easy to wing things here in Malaysia. Besides, isn’t half the fun the challenge of getting somewhere new for the first time anyway?

Having decided that I had very much overstayed on Tioman Island, I jumped out of bed and caught a three-hour boat back to the mainland. From there, I walked 20 minutes to the bus station with sweat streaming down my cheeks, grabbed the first bus out of town, and settled in for the comfortable air-conditioned ride. Tonight was a full moon, and I was determined to see it peeking out from between the skyscrapers in Singapore.

Two more easy bus exchanges later and I was being stamped into Singapore with a smile, no questions asked. With no queues, signs containing instructions everywhere, and security cameras watching every possible crevice, I could tell already that this was going to be an efficient, if not Orwellian, city-country and looked forward to exploring it.

I got into the security line for customs completely unaware of what was waiting.

One of the things that I’ve learned while vagabonding over the years is that 90% of the men in developing countries are certified chain smokers. Just out of habit, I usually pick up a pack of the strongest local cigarettes I can find in a new country, sometimes Marlboro Reds, and carry them with me. In Egypt, passing them around helped me make peace with some harassing cops. I used them in China and Indonesia constantly to make friends and even get lower prices by offering them to drivers, vendors, etc.

The innocuous pack of cigarettes from Malaysia sitting quietly in my day bag were the last thing on my mind at customs. When my bag went through the security scanner, which I presumed only looked for important things like machine guns and drugs, the Chinese woman at the controls flicked one fake-fingernailed pinky in its direction and instantly a man grabbed it off the belt.

I was surrounded by uniformed officials.

Having just come from an island where the locals smoke weed regularly, my heart jumped into my throat. Maybe one had stuck some in there as a “gift” without telling me? Maybe I had been maliciously set up by one of the guys for talking to the wrong girl? Maybe the machine blundered? Well, probably not here in Singapore.

I laughed when they pulled out the pack of Marlboros and held them at the tip of my nose like I was a puppy that had just pooped on the carpet. Was that it?

“It is illegal not to declare cigarettes when you enter Singapore, Mr. Rodgers.”

I shrugged, relieved that this was what all the fuss was about. At $2 a pack in Malaysia, they could throw the bloody things away for all I cared.

“What else are you carrying?”

Through the fog of adrenaline, I started to slowly realize that had I followed my own advice on Startbackpacking.com and simply cleaned up a little nicer for the border crossing, all this could have probably been avoided. Instead, I stood in front of them wearing raggedy cammo cargo shorts and my Shaolin Kung Fu sleeveless top. Sand from the island still clung to my tanned skin, and I definitely had bed head from sleeping on the bus.

In short, I looked like the type of guy that WOULD try to bring in something more.

My passport has been through hell the last few years and the faded picture has caused me a little trouble getting into London, even. My passport is always on my waist, and so it absorbs more than its fair share of sweat and abuse. To keep it from getting any worse, I started carrying it in a small plastic baggie to protect it. Now that same small square bag was being held in front of me by a pissed off agent.

“What was in this bag?”

I had taken my passport out of it at the border and had shoved the empty bag into my shorts pocket. I have to admit, it did look like a bag that someone would keep pills in. Crap.

“Did you swallow or hide something when we pulled your bags off the belt?”

Things were going downhill fast. This morning I was walking in the sand. Now, somehow I found myself with a front-row seat to a train wreck.

I just finished “Mr. Nice” by Howard Marks, a great book about a charismatic guy who smuggled hash and money over borders countless times. Thank God I was no longer carrying the book. Now I can say that I have had a small glimpse of the thrill he must have received each time he crossed a border successfully. I don’t think he would have a chance here in Singapore, but he is a guy who could talk his way out of anything. I decided to give it my best shot and smiled at the officials (I wisely didn’t offer them one of my illegal cigarettes) and purred my best charismatic apology.

“You are going to be fined. You will sit here while we process the paperwork to see if anything that you swallowed starts to take affect.” Wow…I guess I’m not exactly Howard Marks.

The bag and my passport were taken into another room with a locked door. I was left to sit alone seeping in my negative chi and wondering how much the fine was going to be. I had heard that you can be fined in Singapore for jaywalking, chewing gum, and spitting — but I didn’t expect to get fined in the first 20 minutes!

Over an hour later, I was forking over my credit card because I hadn’t even had a chance to exchange money yet. I was fined $1 per cigarette, and threatened with a $500 fine for failure to declare goods to customs that they didn’t enforce. That $2 pack of Marlboros had somehow become a $20 pack of Marlboros. Damn. No doubt I was going to be very selective about who got one in the future!

A man wearing a mask to protect himself from swine flu or anything else that us potential druggie backpackers carry came out with a penlight and made me follow it with my eyes. He grunted, clicked off the light, and nodded to the agent — a sign that I passed. I collected my things, carelessly stuffing them back into my rucksack, and nearly broke my legs trying to get to the door fast enough where I was handed my passport.

“Welcome to Singapore, Mr. Rodgers. Please do try not to break any more laws while you are here.”

I gave my best kiss-my-ass smile to the guy and hit the streets of Singapore with my head spinning, wondering what in the hell just happened to me. If I were still on Tioman Island, I would probably have been standing in the sand under a full moon, rather than staggering around with a poorly packed backpack and an official’s boot up my bottom. I do have to give the officials credit though, they were very polite through the entire operation, and a bribe was never brought up as it would have been in a lot of these countries.

Strangely, there wasn’t an ATM or money changer within miles of the land border crossing. The time was now after midnight, I was fully loaded down in a big city, and pretty much lost with no orientation, no money, and no map. Luckily, Singapore has a very low crime rate, but in another place this could have been an unpleasant situation.

After speaking to a nice Indian man, I knew I had to take a bus to the MRT train station, but with no local currency it’s hard to pay a bus. The puzzle was laid out before me and I had to either accept or curl up in a ball somewhere in the bus station.

I walked for 30 minutes past closed shops and restaurants until I finally found an ATM which spat out a handful of crisp, colorful $50 bills for me. I looked one over before stuffing it into my money belt; it really was beautiful. U.S. dollars, as useful as they are, really betray our government’s lack of effort at a lot of things. So many other countries use notes that really are a work of technology and art, unlike our dirty green bills.

Large-denomination notes are the bane of backpackers everywhere. They can be nearly impossible to break or use in some countries. When I use an ATM, I always try to game it by entering in a multiple that will allow me to get smaller notes. The smallest bills this machine would produce were $50 notes — about US $39 each

Buses don’t carry change, and I didn’t really want to pay $50 for a 20-minute ride, so I started walking again until I came to the only thing on the streets that appeared to be open: a McDonalds. Singapore is famed for having the best collection of food in the world, and now my first meal here apparently was going to be McDonalds — hardly even real food. So not fair! With no choice, I walked toward the golden arches.

I ordered a cheeseburger and shake and was able to get some small change with which I caught a bus to the nearest MRT station. The MRT train is brilliant and is a real testament to how things work in this city. The place was clean, modern, and even far easier to figure out than the Tube or the “L” in Chicago. In one day I had already used a boat, multiple buses, and now a train. I love travel moves that require all three — it really feels like you are going someplace!

A friend recommended a hostel in the Arab block of Singapore, but with no map and the train station names having nothing to do with their relative neighborhoods, I simply picked one that looked to be near the city center: Bugis. I avoided a near disaster by just making the last train of the night and enjoyed the relaxing air-con luxury for a quiet, swaying 45 minutes.

I had no idea where to go when the doors opened at the last stop and the time was already 1:30 a.m.

I walked out onto an empty dark street with nothing but closed businesses and boutiques on either side. It was clearly a commercial district, but how many hostels do you usually find at the bottom of gigantic banks and insurance skyscrapers? For over an hour, I weaved a grid pattern city block by city block in hopes of finding accommodation. There was no one to ask, just a few groups of young men which I wanted to avoid, and the occasional stunningly beautiful Chinese working women in heels and miniskirts out walking around the streets.

I have a feeling they usually don’t look for guys that stay in hostels so I received only one offer for “massage.” I also spotted a small rat, which unlike his well-fed cousins in Kuala Lumpur, looked the victim of an ultra-clean, ultra-modern city.  There was no garbage or even a single cigarette butt on the streets, so I would say he has a tough life here.

I caught glimpses of Westerners eating late in a McDonalds and found myself walking into the second one of the day. Unbelievable!

“Where are you guys staying, know any good hostels?” I asked, sagging under the weight of my bag. It had been on and off of my shoulders nearly for 14 hours. They were young-but-built guys, the beefiest backpackers I’ve ever met.

“No man, we have to stay on the carrier.” He didn’t seem happy about it. It took a while for my slow mind to comprehend what he was saying. It turns out the aircraft carrier “USS George Washington” is here at port, but leaving in the morning. These were sailors. Too bad, I would have loved to have seen the massive ship.

I left the McDonalds and was about to concede defeat and use a taxi driver as a concierge, a very expensive prospect, when a giant, multiple story building with lights all around caught my eye in the far distance. I made my way over to it, careful not to jaywalk on the empty streets out of fear of another fine, and realized that I had just found the queen mother of hostels in Singapore: the YMCA!

I couldn’t believe it. The lobby was marble and belonged in a five-star hotel, not a place for drug smuggling backpackers and vagabonds. There were maids pushing cleaning carts around, two giant stainless-steel elevators, and a car garage. Not your average hostel. For $41 (ouch) I got a bunk bed in a tiny-but-immaculate dorm room where, thank goodness, the occupants were just winding down for bed and still had the lights on. There is nothing worse than coming into a dark-and-unfamiliar dorm room full of sleeping people while trying to get settled in without making too much noise.

On the way to my room, I passed the exercise room and the swimming pool if you can believe — now this is a hostel! When my head hit the clean white pillow, in the brief seconds before I blacked out, I thought for a few minutes about the full moon outside and all the madness it was causing. How many people were dancing under it right now? How many of my friends and loved ones were looking up at the same one? Did any of them even know where I was yet?

There is no other way to describe today other than total madness, but like the Japanese artist Akira said, “In a mad world only the mad are sane.”  It was painful enough. Sort of like scratching an insect bite until it bleeds, it was a good kind of pain. Sometimes I love my job.

Strangely, other than being out-of-body exhausted, I felt happy. After all, I was spending the first night in my 19th new country. 🙂

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7 Responses to “Big Trouble in Little Singapore”



  1. What a packed day!

    We’re in Singapore on Thursday on the first part of our latest trip – can’t bloody wait.

    Andy

  2. You provided the best laughs I had in awhile on a Saturday morning. I wish one day I will have the courage to show up at a border crossing with no plans, reservations or map … but with a pack of cigarettes. Congratulations on your 19th arrival !

  3. Sorry to hear about the unpleasant first impression from my country! Hope you enjoyed the rest of your short stay here though!

    Nice blog. Really like yr writing style!

  4. I’ve always heard that Sing was a fine country. Hope you enjoy your stay there dude, I’ve also heard it is very beautiful and one of the cleanest places in the world.

  5. Apologies Mr. Rodger, for the harrowing experience. I guess though, it’s the only way to keep Singapore clear from drugs.

    Singapore is said to be a fine country, but in fact, the fines aren’t enforced most of the time. The various signs serve as a deterrent and it does seem to be working.

    Singapore is safe and stable, even after dark, even in dark alleys. I think the only way to keep it that way is to have a stringent border security protocol. Not always nice, but I do believe it’s a necessary evil.

    I hope you had a nice stay 🙂

  6. @Esther: I only accept (slightly begrudgingly) ‘necessary evils’ from the perspective of a traveler. Aches and pains are nothing for a traveler, after all, it’s always temporary. But dealing with a strict, tidy, overly orderly government like Singapore’s for your whole life would take its toll. 😛 Blegh! I don’t even like my hometown’s gardens for how orderly they are! I think I saw the yard staff for a municipal park using precise measurement tools once. :/ No. Singapore would not be my cup of tea for an especially long stay.

  7. WOW! This seems a little excessive, but I guess that is why the crime rate is so low. Thank you for sharing!

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