The Greatest Sign of All
Near the end of my stay in Singapore, I took a bus to the intersection of Orchard and Scott Roads to photograph my favorite sign of all. It was clever, could not be missed, and, surely, daily spurred thousands of pedestrians into a reflective mood as they waited to traverse the crosswalk. Employing the same white paint used to demarcate street lanes, the government had drawn a 20–square–foot box on the asphalt. The message began with red lettering, "Are you a smoker?" and then continued in white: "THIS IS THE AMOUNT OF TAR IN YOUR LUNGS AFTER 1 YEAR." I noticed the same sign a kilometer down the street—but it said after three years, not one. I supposed, however, that it is the impact more than the accuracy the government was after. Who wants even one square foot of highway in his lungs?
Still kneeling beside the curb—I wanted to capture the tar sign well—a young woman sauntered into my peripheral vision, which had the effect of ripping my head to the left, hard. The hem of her short brown skirt danced left, right, and then left again. Its movement was a tad seductive and tar was now the farthest thing from my mind. Suddenly, I was in agony. But the swaying hem wasn't the half of it. Across her backside, written in such a way that even the font was meant to seduce, attract, tantalize, or whatever it was that was happening to me, were brown letters spelling out a single word: "delicious".
This sign didn't elicit any humor in me. It told me I was a man, in particular that I was a single man surrounded by swaying women of Chinese, Indian, and Malay descent, and that there are truly great challenges for a man traveling in Asia. I felt little desire to rise from my knees. It seemed appropriate to stay here a moment, to come to terms with the fact that, when least expected, my entire soul could be yanked from my body and dragged by its ankle down Orchard Road. I knew that at this very moment children were starving to death, wars were raging, and widows weeping. But they could not matter to me until I got my soul back.
All this to say, I learned that Singapore is not an entirely safe city. The omnipresent signs could lull you into thinking that every danger has been catalogued and cordoned off. It is, however, not true. And so to the next traveler who tells me that Singapore is "too safe," or "too sterile," or "too boring," I probably won't even respond. Instead, I suspect I'll feel a slight shudder in this human soul of mine. It is a soul that will sometimes take risks and commit to noble pursuits, but it is also one that can be momentarily slain by the power of several letters, set to swaying on a Singaporean sidewalk.
Joel Carillet is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. His writing and photography have appeared in venues such as the Christian Science Monitor, Best Travel Writing 2008, Everywhere, World Hum, and Encounters with the Middle East. You can find him and a photoblog at JoelCarillet.com.
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