I jog down Cavenagh Road and, if it’s early enough to beat the traffic, sprint across Orchard Road in front of Plaza Singapura. Otherwise, I take the underpass to Istana Park and look forward to greeting the friendly old cleaner who cleans the floors, tiles and railings every morning until they shine.
Some time ago, he developed a nasty leg ulcer and was replaced by another elderly chap who was far less industrious. My unreasonable antipathy against the poor old usurper lifted only when – to my disproportionate joy, and against the odds considering his age – my old man returned after more than a year. He’s still there, still doing a great job.
Sometimes, I run to and around that beautiful little gem of a park, shady Fort Canning. It has a perfect 2km loop mini-time trial, umpteen sets of stairs and a choice of hills for strength training. And when my run takes me farther, along the river past Boat Quay and the Fullerton to Marina Bay, I’ll always return via the park for water, to cool down and to stretch before strolling home.
In front of the old Fort Gate at the top of the park is an atmospheric stone-paved terrace lined with benches where I can do some yoga stretches and meditate for a few minutes to the calling of birds and the shriek of cicadas. This is my favourite spot in the whole of Singapore.
Often I have this sanctuary to myself. Sometimes, the Indian sweeper moves through, his broom of twigs waging patient war against the endless fallen leaves; sometimes, my session coincides with a sixtyish chap who gracefully practises some sort of martial art with a long sword, or with a rhythmically snapping fan.
There’s a regular group of three to six elderly Chinese men who pass me in animated conversation, discussing what, I wonder? Today’s headlines, stocks and shares, politics, the government, their families, their girlfriends? We all smile and say hello; if I’ve been missing for a while, they say, “Long time, did you go back home?” They’re my park friends.
One of them is Jeffrey, the Bird Man of Fort Canning Park. The first time I saw him, he was standing next to the Fort Gate, calling to the birds – and being answered. He’s self-deprecating about his skill, and more interested in finding out about me than talking about himself. Hearing that I’m South African, his eyes sparkle: he tells me he used to deal in steel out of Johannesburg.
To please me, he demonstrates a kingfisher call and response, and tells me that the swallows are his favourites: when he calls to them, they swoop down to say hello. Still involved in business, he’s been walking in this park most days for the past 30 years – “even before they built the City skyscrapers”.
But it was when the fearsomely armed guards at the Istana gate started to wave in greeting to me that I first began to feel that I somehow belong to this neighbourhood. It gives me a huge kick.
To sum up: sports shoes – from $100; a well-earned ice cream cone from McDonald’s in Centrepoint – 70 cents; a smile and a wave from an Istana guard – priceless.