Sabtu, 04 Desember 2010


Published in Now! Jakarta, January 2011


The city skyline of Singapore with the new Sands Casino building to the right.

Last month I flew on an Emirates Airbus 380 from New York to Dubai and it was the best flight of my life: the cabin crew in business class were all Miss Universe contestants and the back of the cabin has a gay bar with a bondage section for horse-trading sheiks and others.

My trip started in Singapore where I visited the famed Malay food hall at the colonial era Central Railway Station which straddles the station’s platforms and has quaint little gardens, replete with rusty old track-cleaners as artwork ‘accents’.

In January 2011 the station will close and the final curtain will drop on the Island Republic’s most convivial hawkers’ market.

It should be noted that, in the better hawkers’ markets of the Malay Peninsula, one often finds, amongst the greasy ‘prawn cushions’ and buckets of chili sauce, a liberal sprinkling of ‘Malays’ of Punjabi, or Arab descent serving the most delicious briyanis and goat meat stews.

While attractive dining options for the wealthy have increased one hundred-fold, the simple man’s pleasure spots — the kopi tiam cafes and satay stalls — have, for the most part, been demolished ‘coralled’ into noisy, neon-lit food halls.

Sanity over sensuality I call it.

From central station, it’s a short hop to Santosa Island, the old colonial era outpost which is now a sort of recreation and leisure centre — there are ten hotels, a Universal Studio, a casino, a Sea World and numerous well-catered beaches — with luxury coastal real estate on the side. I have a job doing a garden on Billionaire Row — that strip of cutting edge, slightly sinister houses mostly modeled on micro-wave ovens.

There is a slightly seedy side to Sentosa too. On Black Sabbath Eve ‘Foam Parties’ are held on the beaches near Sea World: lithe young accountants, homosexualists and party animals converge into one big writhing mass of shaving foam and dance to a disco beat.

I went once but lost my partial denture and couldn’t find it in the foam.

The handsome Art Deco façade of the Central Railway building in Singapore.

A facade on a ‘McDream Home’ at Santosa Cove, Sentosa Island, Singapore.

‘Jihadista’ Haji Abbas, my security consultant, at Sea World.

Mah Siti one of the vendors in Singapore’s legendary Central Railway food hall.

The assistant to the wash-room attendant at the Central Railway has been asleep for 38 years.

The food hall signage is militant, Malay but user-friendly.

• • •

Next I fly to Houston via Mangalore India: Emirates flies to Houston non-stop from Dubai daily.

Houston is the best international arrival point in the U.S.: they have a ‘One Stop’ lane for travelers with only hand luggage, and an airport Marriot hotel — reached via the airport’s excellent inter-link rail service — that has a fabulous revolving restaurant.

On my day off I visit the incredible De Menil Collection in one of the world’s finest small museums.

Designed by Renzo Piano, the exquisitely proportioned, naturally-lit, warm and friendly museum houses, in one section, a remarkable collection of African, Oceanic and Primitive Indonesian art — displayed in veranda-like rooms with wide-planked, timber floors — and, in another section, the best of America’s abstract expressionists. In another remarkable section are works by a collection of Europe’s best surrealists and impressionists — René Magritte and Picasso in particular.

The day I was there they had a room set up with pieces from surrealist artists studios, which included tribal art from Nias, Kalimantan and Papua!

John and Dominique De Menil had exquisite taste, great advisors and a knack for acquiring real estate — she was a Schlumberger, of Schlumberger Oil; he was to eventually run the world-wide Schlumberger operations from Houston). Their five mini-museums sit in a leafy suburb they purchased and ‘dolled up’, so that everything matches.

• • •

Next I went to Naples in Florida where the Asian garden section of the Naples Botanical Garden was finally opened by Sarah Palin.

Palin was fascinated by the Candi Sukuh ruinscape and the notion that Java was something other than a program on Windows.

I delivered a lecture on “Post-Zen Depression” to 200 septuagenarians at the Naples Garden Club. In America they now have ‘crowd controllers’ in Republican enclaves to guard against flash mobs of men kissing, or, as was the case here in Naples, ‘hot flash’ mobs.

The lecture was well-received: in the New World they are great supporters of my Romantic Charm Garden Revival movement. Alhamdulillah!

Students schmooze on a modern art sculpture in one of the many parks around the Menil museums in Houston, Texas.

The room of the Surrealists objects trouvées at The Menil Collection museum in Houston.

Our ruinscape in the Asian Garden Section of Naples Botanical Garden, Florida.

A dashing waiter at the opening party in Naples (Thai Garden in the backyard).

• • •

From Fort Meyers I travel to New York on the wonderful ‘boutique budget’ airline JetBlue which uses the old, chic TWA terminal at JFK. The terminal was originally designed by Eero Saarinen, in the 1960s and has now been re-vamped as the JetBlue hub.

In New York I got taken for a ride by venture capitalists and then went to the opera to see Verdi’s ‘Il Travatore’ at the Met.

It being New York they had lots of fit, black men on stage with their shirts off, hitting anvils.

• • •

Finally, on the home leg, I get to the top deck of the Gay 380 (as the Emirates crew call it) via a special chute that leads from the Emirates amazingly-stocked lounge at JFK. In the lounge they have Vanity Fairs and Chateaubriands and Diet Pepsis, and banks of computers waiting to be used.

The flight is wonderful and I love the lounge at the back of the business class cabin on the top deck.

I always thought ‘lounges’ on airplanes were a bit of a silly idea but in fact they are wonderful, particularly if one is slipping in and out of a fever, as I was. It is re-assuring to stagger back between sweaty sessions on the ‘lie-flat’ and engage a Miss Ethiopia or a Miss Well-borne Melbourne in witty repartee over a bowl of cornflakes at the bar.

Me in the bondage section of the lounge on Emirate’s Gay 380, New York to Dubai.

• • •

Arriving back in Delhi was hellish: after American teeth and sanitary ware, India just looks stained. Immediately I miss the big glasses of chilled water (that induce antrum seizure) and the supersized people (the Indian gardeners I work with are generally waif-like) and all the parks and recreation.

Public art in the arrival hall at Delhi’s new airport.

• • •

After two weeks on the road I arrived back to a Bali where the yoga and retail hags are still banging on about the ravishing new Starbucks in Ubud.

At the Linda Garland estate celebrity gays are getting married in full Balinese costume, dressed as village priests!

I don’t know why I leave, really.

It takes a few days to get over the jet lag but I soon return to my small village life ‘comfort zone’.

One night in late December, I arrive at my Scrabble buddy Putu’s house in Sidakarya village to find the Ponorogos, Pak Putu’s builders, cleaning a duck carcass in the bush kitchen. Putu loves his flock of garden ducks so I was distressed.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Too much lovin,” came the reply.

Apparently poor Daisy had become just another statistic in the tawdry tale of duck date rape in Bali.