Much of the world is dirty, and travel through third world countries can prove a rude and uncomfortable awakening to those of us accustomed to regular trash collection, street sweeping, and basic standards of human hygiene. Thus far on our journey, China has taken the prize for dirtiest country, a distinction earned as a result of its race to industrialize rather than the laziness of its people. With the exception of Guilin in the south, every city we visited was covered in a heavy layer of smog and grime. The sidewalks and benches were so filthy I winced whenever the kids touched skin or clothing to them. Avoiding the colossal globs of saliva and phlegm that the Chinese, men and women alike, routinely deposit on all available surfaces became a family game. “Ha, Mom stepped in a loogie!”
Southeast Asia seemed to struggle not so much with grime but with dust. We hit Cambodia and Laos during the dry season when areas that only a month earlier were flooded looked as if they hadn’t seen a drop of water in years. The goods at roadside markets were caked in a thick layer of red earth and our clothing took on the same red sheen after long days of exploring museums and wandering ruins.
We’re headed to India, one of the most densely populated and dirtiest places on the planet. We know it will shock us…we have yet to meet anyone it has not…but we also know that as with any place, we must take the bad to get the good.
It just so happened that the cheapest route to dirty India was through one of the world’s cleanest countries–Singapore. We had only a day and a half there, but it was sufficient to remind us that there are still bastions of civic hygiene on this little ball of dirt we inhabit. Singapore, where chewing gum was once banned and is still not sold, takes everything seriously and simply does not tolerate dirt. Streets gleam, buildings sparkle, and people are impeccably groomed. Some who live there feel the strict imposition of cleanliness is oppressive, but to us it was refreshing, dare I say intoxicating.
Though the monsoon rains kept us from exploring the city on foot, we got beautiful bird’s eye views from our friends’ 20th floor penthouse apartment. Chris, one of Tom’s high school swim teammates, and his lovely Aussie wife, Paula, graciously fed us the last steak and potatoes we will have for the next few months and filled us in on all the particulars of expat life in squeaky clean Singapore. What we found most fascinating about their experience is the seeming lack of borders in their lives. With family and friends all over the world, they held wedding receptions in the US, Italy, and Australia. Through their international union, they’ve endowed their two little girls with the exceptional benefit of triple citizenship–American, Australian, and British (Paula was born in the UK but raised in Australia). Three-year-old Ella is already learning Mandarin at school and might well be fluent by the time her family returns to Australia in a few years. So while we are trying to create a global awareness in our kids by taking a year away from our normal lives, this family achieves the same simply by living theirs day to day!
Thanks, Chris and Paula, for sharing our love of the world and some mighty fine Western cuisine on a rainy Singapore evening. We’ll never forget it! Now it’s time for India.