Secret Journeys in Singapore: The country, not by the numbers

Rohit Brijnath sometimes sees more than he bargains for on buses and trains

When I recovered consciousness I was in the back of a hospital-bound taxi, lying on the lap of three strangers, blood on my shirt. I had no idea how I had got there. I was 15, in Kolkata and soaked in fear.

In Kolkata, it isn't always easy to get into a public bus, so you hang out of one. Grab a handrail, poke two inches of a sneaker onto a step and ride the wind. It's called a mother's nightmare. That day, as I leaned out of the back door, another bus knocked me off while overtaking and nudged me into unconsciousness.

This then is how I explore cities, their behaviours, codes, smells, dress sense, inventiveness and also their hospitals. By riding public transport. By spending a non-driving life in three nations in buses, trams, trains, rickshaws, tongas (a horse-driven buggy) and autos (Indian three-wheelers).

Here's what I found: If you want to decipher a city the hard way, start with the back door. It's what happens in Singapore, 2007, on my first commute to work. The bus is suffocated with people in front, so I nimbly step through the back door. It's what I use for Melbourne trams and Kolkata buses. Except here people look at me as if I am some foreigner with low IQ, but no one speaks. Not even the driver. Not a word. The doors stay open, but I feel closed in.

A bewildered stand-off ensues: to tell me of my error is to ensure I lose face; to be silent is to ensure the bus just sits. After a long minute, someone whispers that I am breaking the rules, stepping on etiquette and generally mocking the Singaporean way of life. Scarlet with embarrassment I get out and walk to the front. The bus moves on. Welcome to Singapore.

The mornings of my life have been defined by route numbers. No. 77 bus in Kolkata, No. 75 tram in Melbourne, No. 70 or No. 86 in Singapore. Twelve minutes by bus to Yio Chu Kang station; nine minutes by train to Braddell; five minutes by foot to SPH News Centre: 26 minutes to negotiate a city's nature and its geography.

Every day if you care to look, you discover. Last week in the train a young woman stands with her arms encircled around a young man's waist. They hold no pole, they are each other's anchor. I smile: young love expressed is unbeatable.

Some days I forget to look and see more than I bargain for. Out to buy cigarettes one night, armed with no phone, I plan to take a bus two stops down to the shop. Except I take the wrong bus, suddenly it swerves onto the CTE, it won't stop, miles later rolling into a Singapore I've never been to.

I get off laughing, I wander down a road thin with people, but this city never gives rise to fear. A cleaner directs me, I find a cab and 45 minutes later this inadvertent explorer returns to a bemused wife. It is an impromptu, secret journey which no one will believe.

My daily journey starts at B37 bus stop at Sunrise Gardens on Yio Chu Kang Road. Above me are tree branches that appear to be reaching out to embrace each other across the road. Down below there is less contact: I am among familiar faces from my condo yet we mostly remain strangers. It is as if there is a transparent membrane of privacy around us that we're not allowed to break; yet if you breach this divide, and ask a question, the Singaporean is invariably generous.

By evening, life can be grimy, worn, unsatisfactory; in the morning, at the bus stop, life has promise. I don't need Dubai's air-conditioned bus stops, for every city must have a smell. Like freshly mown grass from a triangular garden behind the bus stop.

There are no birds, but people chirrup quietly into phones, their hands covering their mouths as if guarding a secret. Women wait in the sun, as efficiently dressed as their city - everything pleated, polished, tucked, colour-coded. In my unpolished shoes I feel I am about to be fined. A man stands in a sleeveless T. Show-off. Three Indian workers, in jeans, look uncertain.

My bus wheezes to a halt and inside it is a microcosm of this city. In under-populated Australia, my tram is almost never crowded; in turbulent Kolkata, a hundred conversations break out like rebellions in a bus, everyone joined by a glue of sweat; in Singapore, there is a quiet order, the only sound the tinny music from the earphones of a kid who's going to be prematurely deaf.

At 18, through the serpentine hills of north India, I take a bus ride through the winter night, a window broken, the wind cruel, eventually offered refuge under a drunk's filthy blanket. I take it. Here, too, in the air-conditioning I see a kindness grow. More people get up for the elderly. Not all, though. Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist, kept sitting for a cause, but some Singaporeans have no adequate reason to not stand up.

Few people read on buses and the art of travelling origami - wherein you artistically fold a large newspaper into a readable, manageable shape - is dying. So I peer out of the windows, sometimes artfully mottled by the rain. On one side of Yio Chu Kang Road is tangled, disordered, beautiful foliage, on the other a building rises in this impermanent city of concrete clones: the test of Singapore is to see if both can forever co-exist, facing each other with no sense of contradiction.

On we trundle in my No. 70 bus, past ST Electronics, left at Apple, the occasional driver downshifting like a wannabe Sebastian Vettel. I know many drivers, not by name but face: the wizened old man, the stern lady, the white-gloved woman, the long-sideburned smiler. All these dutiful people, unacknowledged by us, provide a service to Singapore. When polls say this is a "great" city it is not because of us, but them.

I explore my route every day with my eyes. I mourn the monotonous buildings, contemplate the bare Yio Chu Kang stadium which waits to be watered by the sweat of runners, and rejoice at the sight of the red temple adorned by two dragons. It is an architectural relief, it is soothing, and in a city religious about money it is nice that faith still has a place. Close by the Ang Mo Kio police station stands dressed in blue and white and next door red dragons of another sort stand mute at the fire station, hoping never to be called.

Then, with a wave to my bus captain, I am at Yio Chu Kang station, where the refreshing openness of the platform has been stifled by newly constructed train doors. Safety has trumped beauty. Inside, a pristine carriage is not pockmarked with litter unlike Melbourne's somewhat grotty trains. Inside, as the train rides above the city, is also a dizzying cross-section of Singapore citizenry to observe - like a laboratory on wheels.

The tired lady and the painted teen, one carrying bags from FairPrice, the other from H&M. The video-watcher and game-player, fake-eyelash owner and fake-sleeper, rosary-counter and hair-fiddler. No eye contact is the law even if occasional kissing is permissible.

Non-verbal communication is the preferred language here: no one speaks, they just shift behind me and presume I will magically figure out they want to get off. But I am too busy counting - of the 14 people sitting on either side of me, 12 are using phones. I feel kinship only with the solitary daydreamer - an underrated and dying pleasure. Between Ang Mo Kio and Bishan stations, I have often won Wimbledon in my head.

This is not a city of walkers, but more of wheels. And nowhere else are we so forced into contact with each other for a duration as in the train. In a mall, we move on; in a movie, we're in the dark; in a park, we are distant. Here, in this metal enclosure that is a carriage, even if inadvertently, so much happens - we touch, we mingle, we grudgingly make room for each other, we see each other, we acknowledge each other's humanity, we discover each other.

Always I notice something new about this city that loves the new. A new poem by a school kid hanging in a bus. A new nail polish design. A new hairstyle, headphone, handbag, habit. Somehow this journey never gets old for me; somehow it helps me feel the city and its mood, its nuances, its fashion, its manners, its desires.

Then before I know it I am regurgitated onto the vast, soundless platform at Braddell, past the polite SMRT folk in their glass bubble, and into a sunlit street. A Singaporean day has begun. Tomorrow, at bus stop B37, Yio Chu Kang Road, an exploration will recommence.

rohitb@sph.com.sg