Sometime last year….
“The dinner at the restaurant was phwoar…horrible!” I shuddered at the thought of our dinner last night with some friends at an Asian restaurant nearby. “Don’t know how people can stomach that junk,” I said when my in-laws asked us how our dinner went over our weekly Sunday lunch.
“Really? But people like going there,” said my mother-in-law looking surprised. My in-laws’ idea of Asian food is limited to sushi, fried noodles and fried crispy duck over a steaming plate of rice with mixed vegetables on the side. “Can the food really be so bad?”
“Na klar. Wait till you come to Malaysia and I’ll show you the REAL deal,” I promised.
* * *
I thought nothing about the promise until about we decided spontaneously to attend my cousin’s wedding in Penang early this year. Then an idea formed. We could ask if my in-laws wanted to tag along. That way, they wouldn’t have to worry about being on their own and getting lost. They also wouldn’t have to worry about their lack of ability to speak English because well, we’d be doing most of the talking.
You see, before embarking on this trip, my in-laws have never travelled out of Europe before.
Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that they don’t travel. Oh, they do. It’s their yearly ritual to rent a campervan and do a 2-week road trip around Italy or Poland. Or spend the the summer in Greek or Italian islands. They’ll use up all their 30 days of vacation to unwind and to rejuvenate. It’s just that they’d never thought of going anywhere that would require them to have a passport.
Travelling Asia, or more specifically Southeast Asia, never really crossed their minds. Prior to me harping on and on about what they’re missing, a holiday in the east for them conjured up images of extreme hot weather, chaos and crowded metropolises. It just wasn’t their idea of a relaxing vacation.
But this time, they agreed to come.
It would be scorching hot, I warned them.
Messy even. Mosquitos galore. Endless crowds.
But the food, I told them, the food will be [email protected]%king-lutely glorious.
As the departure date loomed closer, their excitement heightened. They pelted us with questions. Out of curiosity and anticipation, but also a little out of fear.
I didn’t know what to expect either. Family travel was as exotic to me as much as Asia was to them. I hadn’t had a family vacation since I was 16 years old. Could I or they survive it?
Or would they hate me after?
Day 1–Singapore: Everything’s effortless except for chopsticks
It was a trip of firsts for my in-laws. First time out of Europe. First time owning a passport and having it stamped. First time taking a long-distance train to catch the flight from Frankfurt. First time taking a long haul flight with a transit stop in Dubai. First time traveling light: between the both of them, they only had a suitcase and two daypacks.
When we eventually arrived in Singapore, at some point settled into our Airbnb rental–a towering high-rise condominium over the area of Boon Keng–they sank into the sofa with relief. It wasn’t as bad as they thought.
Part of them was glad that the 17-hour journey was over but they were pleasantly surprised at how effortless everything had gone. We’d sailed through immigration, picked up our bags, hailed a local taxi and now, enjoying the spacious living room of our rental.
“So, this isn’t a hotel! We’re actually staying at a property of someone else’s?” My parents in-laws marvelled. The three-bedroom apartment was large, clean enough and with a balcony overlooking a spectacular pool below. They scampered excitedly outside to take in the view. The skyscrapers surrounding the condo, the blaring honks from the traffic below, assured them that they have finally arrived in the land they had only heard so much about.
As we had wanted them to take it easy on the first day, we left the full walking tour around Marina Bay and Raffles to the next day. Instead, after a few hours of rest and getting used to the humidity in Singapore, we thought a quick stroll along Orchard Road and then Chinatown would do the trick.
But first, lunch. It didn’t go very well. Lunchtime at Bendemeer Food Centre was crowded with professionals, blue collars, families and the elderly. Besides lack of seats, the heat and the mess became slightly stressful for my in-laws. After hovering over a few tables for a while, we found a small table near the tray return stands and the bins.
Their faces exposed hints of resignation when I emerged with a few dishes that didn’t require me to stand in line for long. They weren’t very hungry. Their foreheads were plastered in sweat. I’d forgotten that we’d just come from a sub-zero climate and now suddenly in a local eating house, in a tropical country. No wonder the food didn’t look too tempting. Also apart from my husband, I realised that most Germans don’t eat at random times of the day. Unlike Malaysians, we seem to find every opportunity to eat.
The bowl of noodles for them stayed untouched for a few minutes while Chris and I dug into ours. They looked uncertain. What is it? They don’t like noodles? Then it dawned me that it wasn’t the food but rather those odd plastic utensils by the bowl.
I gave them a quick chopsticks tutorial but it wasn’t as easy as I made it out to be. They grappled and fumbled with it, like how someone speaking a foreign language for the first time. Strands of noodles slipped and fell before my mum-in-law managed to thrust them into her mouth. In the end, I came back with some fork and spoons.
It was interesting to discover their impressions of Singapore. A city that is so familiar to Chris and I, was inordinately so strange to them. The urban sounds and smells, towering concrete and steel and affordable convenience at one’s doorstep took some getting used to.
Still, they found Singapore easy to travel. When evening came, they had already grown accustomed to the heat and humidity, the blasting air-conditioning in restaurants, MRT stations and shopping malls, and the constant buzz. My father-in-law even found his way around the residential neighbourhood we were staying in. He knew where to get bottles of water, coffee or beer should we need it, without needing Chris to take him out. In Chinatown, they even indulged in a piece of Bak Kwa (pork jerky), which they thought was delicious.
For dinner, we wanted them to enjoy the sort of modernity that isn’t found in Germany so we took them to Genki Sushi. Here, the sushi platters are on served the backs of race cars and orders are taken on tablets. It wasn’t groundbreaking Japanese food to begin with but coming from where we’re living, the sushi at Genki is superior. Somehow their chopstick skills improved as they got familiar with the movement.
To cap the night, we sat on the balcony and drank beer out of cans. Artificial lighting lit up the night sky. We chatted happily and went to bed, chalking the day up to a success.
Day 2–Singapore: Unforeseen circumstances get in the way
“Morgen!” I greeted my father-in-law cheerily who was already up and about. He greeted me in reply but without the cheeriness to match. Wait, did we miss something? Did something happen during the night?
He confirmed my suspicions. My mother-in-law was suffering from nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It was so bad that she couldn’t even bring herself to the living room. It was classic food poisoning and there was nothing much we could do about it but wait. We’d no idea what could be cause of it but she suspected it was the sushi. But we all had sushi and we were fine! It was difficult to pinpoint a source but whatever it was, it would make no difference now. She was feeling awful.
“I can’t even stand the smell of coffee,” she croaked weakly from bed. She’d once told me that if she couldn’t take coffee, something she couldn’t live without, it was a telling sign that she was in agony. But no matter how poorly she felt, she made us get breakfast without her.
With my father-in-law, we went back to the Bendemeer Food Centre, since it was near, but this time, there were plenty of seats and free tables. The stalls were still buzzing but there were less people eating.
Now more familiar with my father-in-law’s likes and dislikes in food, I got him some simple breakfast noodles drenched in dark soy sauce (and a sausage on the side) while Chris and I got prata, laksa and soft-boiled eggs to share. My father-in-law also got a steaming cup of Kopi-O-Kosong which he’d learned to enjoy. Initially he found the condensed milk too sweet. So instead, a Kopi-O-Kosong was a good substitute if an Americano wasn’t available.
There are so many things you can learn about the other person when you travel together–the good and the bad. Interestingly, I learned that my father-in-law wasn’t actually a fussy eater. He was up to trying anything as long as it was savoury, saucy and spicy. He still wouldn’t eat cross-eat, like have both laksa and prata at the same time, but he was happy to try. Discovering this surprising detail about someone who has only grown up on a mainly German diet was to me, unique. Much later I would find out that not once, my father-in-law asked to eat something more familiar to his taste buds. He wasn’t missing bread and he didn’t shy away from eating cooked meals for breakfast either.
We hung around the condo after breakfast, waiting for my mother-in-law to feel better. Worry was all time high but my father-in-law remained calm. We hoped that she would at least feel well enough to handle an easy trip to the Gardens By The Bay later in the afternoon. Chris suggested that we could even cab it there, if she still felt poorly.
By late evening, her condition didn’t improve. She still couldn’t eat and lacked the energy and motivation to get out of bed. In the end, we made a difficult decision to make something out of the evening while we were still in Singapore. We felt sorry that she would be missing out so much, especially after how much she’d looked forward to the light show at the Gardens By The Bay. She couldn’t come along but she wouldn’t let us mope around the house either.
“Go!” she urged her husband. “At least one of us gets to see Singapore!”
While waiting for the second light show of the night to start, we picnicked at Marina Barrage, munching on satay and drinking beer which we bought from Satay By The Bay. Containers of food and sauces scattered over the bench. The night was balmy but pleasant. It was something Chris and I used to do while living in Singapore. From the Barrage, you can admire the sunset and the twinkling Marina Bay Sands from afar.
When the time came, we pushed through the throngs of tourists and allowed ourselves to be mesmerized by the light show. It was something Chris and I had done a thousand times before; each time with different groups of people, but the show still got us transfixed like as if it was our first time.
My father-in-law recorded the whole thing on his smartphone, lamenting that it was a shame that his wife wasn’t there to experience it.
Much later, as we gathered on the balcony again, we made plans about our upcoming days. We all were due to fly to Penang tomorrow but we had no idea if my mother-in-law could make it.
“If she’s no better, we’ll stay in Singapore for another day,” my father-in-law decided. “We can always join you the day after.”
That wasn’t part of the plan but getting sick wasn’t either. Our time in Singapore was marred by the rare unfortunate case of food poisoning, something which I found hard to believe. Singapore, of all the places! Getting food poisoning in the cleanest, most hygienic city of Southeast Asia, was almost unheard of.
If Singapore already made my mother-in-law sick, what would happen to her in Malaysia? Could my in-laws handle Penang next?
Hang in there for Part 2.