Friday, May 16, 2008

Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin, say the tourist books, is the last bastion of what Singapore used to be: a sleepy fishing village with lazy dogs asleep on the corners, chicken running loose, abundant species of flora and fauna. So one day we planned to wander down to the Changi Ferry Terminal, wait until 12 people arrived (that’s as much of a schedule as the bumboat ferry has), and head across to experience the quiet, rustic, traditional atmosphere of the nearby island.

Unfortunately, we’d chosen to visit on Labour Day (May 1), a public holiday in Singapore. When we arrived in the usually quiet, easygoing hamlet of Changi Village, all the legal parking spaces (and plenty that weren’t) were taken. And, far from waiting idly for a dozen people, the bumboats were chugging hurriedly back and forth, depositing hordes of visitors on the other shore.

On the island, we soon found that the aging zinc-roofed wooden houses and the peeling paint were the only clues that we weren’t on the main island anymore. Everyone we could see looked like they’d just come from downtown; even the bicycle attendants spoke like Orchard Road shop clerks. So we hurriedly escaped down one of the bike paths, in search of the natural beauty of Pulau Ubin.

It was beautiful to cycle beneath the overarching palm trees, sighting the occasional gigantic jackfruit fallen from a tree or a golden-retriever-colored macaque loping through the palms. But even surrounded by nature we were part of a crowd: As we biked, we were constantly pulling over to avoid the ancient vans that trundled by, laden with visitors. The many other bikers often stopped dead in front of us and got off their bikes to walk up a hilly part - just when we’d gotten up enough momentum to pedal through. “City people,” we muttered, climbing awkwardly off our bikes and walking up the hill ourselves.

There were also hordes of walkers, most looking like schoolchildren on a field trip. But they mostly stayed out of the way - until we stopped at a hut to rest and I started to get off my bike. Just as I was swinging my right foot over the top, I was engulfed by a group of them. Suddenly someone’s bag knocked my left shoulder, hard, and in slow motion, the sweaty ang moh and her bicycle fell to the ground in a heap. I wouldn’t have minded so much falling off my bike while riding it. But falling after I’d already gotten off? I found it nearly as ridiculous as the approximately 500 pairs of eyes that blinked curiously at me as I slowly untangled myself. Our friends, I noticed, had moved discreetly down the path.

We’d decided to bike the eastern half of Pulau Ubin for its boardwalk through the natural costal ecosystems rare in this part of Asia, where land reclamation is rampant. (Besides, the western half consists mainly of a temple and about a million prawn farms, which will sell them live to you.) We might not have timed the tides quite right; the water was still a bit too high for us to see some of the coral underneath. Admittedly, one of the informational signs described it as “coral rubble,” so perhaps this area didn’t survive the land reclamation as well as we’d thought. But there were still some hauntingly beautiful - if strangely dry - mangroves, as well as some feisty fiddler crabs defending their turf. And you can’t blame them, really, for staking their claim to what’s left of the quiet, natural world of Pulau Ubin.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

a beautiful photo of a haunting landscape.