Singapore enjoys the very fruits that many Western countries enjoy. Amazing healthcare, education, low crime and economic stability make the country an envious utopia for many other South East Asian countries. For me, an average westerner, it was just nice to be in a metropolis again, without being the only white guy in town. I walked around in a bit of shock, taking in the hedonistic attractions like Maserati sports cars, luxurious shopping malls, and toilets you don’t have to squat on. I often thought about the many rural villages in Indonesia and their simplistic way of life. It still amazes me that an invisible, geopolitical line can dictate so many lives and the opportunities that can arise – or can be taken for granted.
Without doubt, my biggest ‘culture shock’ was the sudden shift in the cost of living. Always one to keep costs down, I hit a new low by donning my cycling bandanna and walking across to the local Sikh Temple. I would aimlessly walk around and within minutes I’d always be invited into the cafeteria for rice and lentils. After the third day I knew a handful of guys on a first name basis and even have an address in Punjab to visit.
After three days in Singapore I crossed the bridge and entered Malaysia with a 90-day free visa. The monsoon season was well into gear
Malaysia would usually be a cycling paradise for most. A generous proportion of locals speak English, the food is cheap, and the roads are smooth highway. It would seem a perfect combination. But the more time I spend cycling in Malaysia, the more I felt disconnected from not only the environment I was cycling in, but the social interactions that invariably took the same course. I’d left Adelaide wanting to embark on a grand adventure and I guess that Malaysia simply couldn’t provide that. The monotony of Malaysia’s vast palm oil plantations would only inspire the very people who own them. Hours merged into hours and days merged into days. With nothing else to do, I would cycle well over 140Km each day.
Most afternoons would see me arrive at a local fire station, exaggerating a look of dejection and asking if a poor foreigner could pitch his tent for the night. After interrupting their game of table tennis or volleyball, I would then inevitably be whisked away into my own room with an air conditioner, Wi-Fi and proceed to mock the tourists who would be exchanging their hard earned cash for the very same privilege.
I was often exhausted; leaving me in no mood to hear the firemen scoff at the suggestion that I was still single and that I really was only 26- most had me pegged at 35. After many nights at separate fire stations, I’d devised answers to each question, which would ultimately finish the conversations and let me go to bed. Hi, my name is Andrew Murphy, I am 35 years old, I am married and have two kids, and I am a Muslim. If at any stage I said I was atheist, I would have to spend the next hour explaining how it’s possible to live without believing in a God. One night this backfired sensationally, as the boss replied “Welcome to Islam! Tonight you join us for evening prayers, the mosque is next door”. I had absolutely no idea how to conduct myself inside a church let alone a mosque. The thought of hiding under my bed until shift change occured, but it would look quite awkward if I got sprung. Instead, I simply plugged my headphones into my laptop and talked to myself for the next hour whilst everyone went to pray. “That Andrew really is a nice guy – a bit strange though.”