World by Bike 18: Chinese New Year
I think it was the sheer number of people that I first noticed - that and the lack of structure at immigration in Bali Airport for my 12 hour stopover in Indonesia. Although I wouldn't be riding in Indonesia, the first significant land mass I’ve have skipped so far on this trip, I wanted to get out and explore a little. I found some prime real estate in the airport to bed down for the night, (on a bench with a wall behind me and to my right for supreme comfort and dual-leaning functionalities), then woke before sunrise to wander around town. With no footpath for pedestrians I walked along the main road, and through a construction site, being swamped by scooters before making it into the backstreets of Depensar before the first Muslim call-to-prayer of the day. I wasn’t in Australia anymore!
I felt a little conspicuous as I explored in the direction of the beach, mainly because I seemed to be the only person not using non-motorised transport. The tiny side-streets weren't an escape from the traffic either, with scooters and mopeds hurtling along as if they really had somewhere to be at 5.30 in the morning. However, after avoiding a group of stray, hungry, rabid dogs who took an alarming interest in me, I found access to the beach and took my first glimpse at the Indian Ocean and one of the volcanoes that looms above the island of Bali. It wasn't quite what I'd imagined (or seen on Instagram of peoples' visits to Bali), as I saw no giant swings in the ocean or golden beaches, just more stray dogs, and a few people setting up their make-shift stalls for the day. I was quickly introduced to the wealth disparity here as just 100m further along the beach I stopped overlooking a luxury hotel complex, with a series of crystal clear swimming pools, and lusciously coloured, golf-course green patches of grass stretching themselves out to beautifully shaped, mahogany-coloured wooden sundeck, and with hotel staff dressed all in white busying themselves getting ready for the breakfast shift.
I took a few photos down by the beach before it was back to the airport to fly to Singapore.
As soon as I touched down I was comforted by the cleanliness, structure and order of Singapore. There was a tangible sense of the Chinese New Year holiday season, and for a lack of a better comparison, I felt rather 'Christmassy'. The whole airport was festooned with red and symbols of prosperity, wealth and good fortune. I found my bike - much to my surprise after finding it just lying on the floor in the middle of the Bali airport the day before (I was told this was where it was supposed to be…) . I put my steed back together and was about to ride off when my friend, Rebecca, who is from Singapore, text me and said she'd arranged for a taxi to pick me up. The hospitality in Singapore would continue to amaze me from that point forward.
Rebecca had arranged for me to stay at her Auntie and Uncle's house for as long as I needed, and had already let me use the address to forward on some much needed new parts for the bike. Rebecca took me out for food that first night, then to church the next day where she introduced me to her friends. Her friends took me out for dinner even though they'd just met me, refusing to let me pay for my own. One of her friends even paid for my week-long Singapore phone plan. It was incredibly humbling.
Church was an experience itself. As the country is relatively mixed religiously, with Chinese Buddhists, Malaysian Muslims and Hindu Indians all having an influence alongside Christianity, people are passionate just to be able to practice their religion, as many people in church have had problems with their families if and when they've converted from another religion. Although the style of church was similar to what I've experienced back in the UK, it seemed a little more authentic and genuine here. Perhaps back in the UK we're more reserved as a culture, and haven't had the same structures on religious practices as many Eastern religions do, but I loved how excited people were. When they asked if I anyone was new to this, Impact Life Church, and I raised my hand, everyone around me started high-fiving me, cheering, smiling and pointing. It was bizarre, but it seemed so genuine, and not at all forced - it was amazing to witness.
The way church is structured was great too, with the church even sitting on a Sunday (well Saturday in Singapore) in particular groups depending on who you meet with during the week for extra teaching. Each section of the church has its own area name, each with its own leader, and each group is subdivided at many levels so that everyone can have a voice, can be accounted for and have someone to be accountable to. It's such a great organisational structure.
However, it got me thinking about the pressure in Singapore, to be so highly organised and structured. Throughout my whole time in the country people were talking about school, university, working and achieving. I slowly learned that as Singapore has only been independent just over 50 years, and with no natural resources to speak of, they have to trade in the expertise of their citizens as a commodity - or so one financial worker at Parkrun Singapore told me over coffee after our 5k jog around Bishan Park. Singapore's main export is its people, and without world-class people, the economy would collapse as they have no natural resources. Kids at school are being tested at age 11 and 12 to decide whether they go into a fast, medium, or slow high school - a slow school will take an extra year to complete their secondary education. Education is so highly valued. It's fascinating. You can see the relatively fragile state of the country and its economy manifest itself with it being illegal to publicly protest, and the fact that they have to rotate the Mayor (I think it was the mayor) around between a someone of the four major religions present in the country to keep people happy. It has to be a Muslim, then a Buddhist, Christian , then Hindu, and so on.
This commitment to discipline and education inevitably led to people asking me why I was travelling. It's interesting, and personally I think it's brilliant, that this was the first place I can really recall someone asking why I'm cycling. Many people ask how, or where I've been, but rarely why. But here, across several large dinner tables for Chinese New Year, I was being asked to effectively explain the concept of travel. It’s great because you don't often get asked to do that as people take travel as a good enough answer in and of itself. Being asked a question like that does make you think, as you often just gloss over it.
After being asked several times over the week, I think my answer was about perspective. It’s interesting to see how other cultures function, what they focus on and how that then flowers into a society. By comparing things from all over the world, with varied people with different histories, religious beliefs and geographical challenges, you can start to see what's a product of societally reinforced behaviour, and what's something common to people cross-culturally. My hope is that by experiencing these things personally, I can start to understand more about the building blocks of people, and hopefully I can make it just a visceral experience that I can keep my mind open to new ideas and new ways of thinking, not confining myself to a particular set of socially reinforced behaviours - perhaps it's something like an evolutionarily adaptive behaviour, being able to float between different vehicles for though.
I ended up staying in Singapore for a whole week waiting for some new bike parts to arrive. Throughout the time my hosts, Steven and Helen spared no expense in treating to lunches with their friends, a visit to the country club, explaining cultural customs to me, and giving me gifts to celebrate the new 'Year of the Pig'. It turns out I was born in the year of the pig / boar too, so it's my year! Rebecca and her family took me to the zoo, introduced me to their church friends, introduced me to a group of Christian mission workers, and were incredibly patient with my inability to use chopsticks. I think best of all was that I got to experience a family environment for Chinese New Year, and felt so welcomed. That, and the fact that it's a custom for married couples to give a little bit of cash in red envelopes to single people, as a sign of passing on wealth and good fortune, a custom I was only too happy to partake in.