Of being dumped at Qantas & finding love at Singapore: Ya Kun Kaya Toast, Home Town Sichuan

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have just landed at Singapore airport. The weather is clear. 28 degrees. Local time is about 9.30 pm.

Now I have a piece of BAD news for you. As of 5.10 pm Australian time the management of Qantas has grounded all Qantas flights till further notice. The staff will be locked out after we land. I am not sure what will happen to passengers in transit.

But I would like to say one thing. I have been a professional pilot for forty years. I know that my duty is to my passengers. So i will be there at the terminal building answering any questions that you may have”.

Qantas is grounded

And I thought that the taxi running over my camera at Sydney and then my burning my tongue on laksa at the airport there was the end of my troubles on the trip back.

Well for all that Captain America meets Independence Day bluster, that was the last we got to see of the Qantas staff. We drifted in like headless chicken to the terminal at Singapore’s Changi Airport. The information counters, unmanned Qantas counters, toilets, smoking lounges…it was a scattered crowd.

No idea where we headed next. My boarding pass said flight to Mumbai in two hours.

In fact hats off to the Changi Airport SATS staff, the ladies in pink and the men in white, who took us under their wings. Shepherding us with patient, warm and understanding smiles. Trying to find out for us what was happening. Passing water bottles, orange juice and muffins around. Not flinching even though they were clearing up someone else’s mess and was harangued by the nervous rage of many.

I fond the reaction of people in crisis intriguing. There were many who had transit flights even from their next port of destination, some had family events to reach, children at home to hurry back to and so on. Most tired after an eight hour flight.Yet the reactions had nothing to do with why they were travelling.

There were some who created a ruckus and wanted to get home. “I am a single lady” and then oxymoronically “I'll have to get back to my husband”. She did get the next flight. As did some others who kicked a fuss even though the SATs folks said they would like to send the elderly and mothers with kids first.

There were those who wanted to vent their anger and the SATS folks were the obvious target. They smiled compassionately, Buddha-like, as they stomached the ire meant for Qantas.

Then there were some who had a sense of patient resignation. The lady from Sydney.

“I am just irritated with Qantas. If they had only told us. I could have stayed at home instead of hanging midway.”

She was visiting friends at Mumbai.

The Indian Australian colleagues travelling on work.

“Well from one set of chairs to another.”

And then few of us who were smiling. Giggling in the case of Jennifer and Mary Ann, two Goan grandmas who were returning to Goa.

“We have no hurry. This is a nice stop. What to do. Let’s make the most of it. What can we see at Singapore?”

They carried this spirit through right till I last saw them a day later. Not complaining. An island of cheer. Comforting others.

“You must write about us on the blog and say that they kept smiling.”

Yes, Jennifer. That’s the spirit.

Then there was another gentleman and me. Both of us smiling in resignation. The former had a connecting flight to Bangalore to catch from Mumbai. Yes he was unperturbed.

“What to do. Shouting won’t get you anywhere. Best is to chill in these situations .”

“Well could have been a hijack. Worse still we could have been stranded at Nairobi or Paris”. (I had no idea that Air France would go on strike a day later when I said this).

The sociologist in me observed that all from the ‘chilled lounge' were either Goans or Bengalis. There has to be more to that.

In fact there were many other Indians who were anxious but not creating a scene. They were figuring out what to do. This included infrequent travellers from small towns. A family with a young girl with special needs. A young man who had come to get married.

“I am getting married in five days.”

“Well this gives you time to change your mind.”

They all could have created trouble but instead tried to work within the situation. Reached home earlier that us in the ‘chilled lounge’. Perhaps there is a lesson there.

We were put into a decent hotel with individual rooms at around 3 in the morning. The SATs folks said that Qantas had told them that they would rebook us and call us at our rooms. Till then we could stay at the hotel, order and eat and wait.

Empty promises as we found out.

I reached the hotel. Was told that only food available was room service and I would have to pay for that as Qantas would pay for breakfast.

Of course the last meal for most of us was lunch, a long time back. Thankfully I couldn’t have been more accessorised if I was Bond and Q had armed me.

I dipped into my bag of chocolates, sauces, noodles and cheese and spotted a pack of Mama’s Tom Yum noodles. Soon the room’s coffee kettle was put to use and James Bong was fed.

The promised call from Qantas never came. And the hotel staff had no news either. There were some who went to the airport and then came back saying that they had been rebooked. 

Those of us in the ‘Chilled Lounged’ still mooched around.

“They said they will call us. Why go the to chaos in the airport?”

Breakfast happened. Soak in the tub too while others worked on their way home.

Then lunch. Chicken rice, siew yoke, mee goreng, laksa, martabak fish head curry … all my favourite Singaporean dishes.

The food at the Changi Village Hotel was as tepid and tasteless as I would expect the buffet of a swank hotel to be.

Which is when I had enough. The thought of another such meal made me galvanise the fellow Chilled Lounge members and head to the airport.

We waited at the Qantas queue. Again the smiling SATs folks welcoming us with warm smiles, trying their best to help us and answer questions to which they knew answers, water bottles in tow.

Mary Ann running around and finding out various things we could do at Singapore the next day.

Mary Ann: "and we could take the bus to the night safari"

I finally reached the counter. The Chinese gentleman from Qantas looked up from his monitor and smiled.

“Aah Mumbai. Kingfisher 7 pm.”

Except I had come unprepared as the promised call to our rooms didn’t happen. There wasn’t enough time to get back with my suitcases from the hotel.

“OK. Then I give you. Singapore Airlines. Tomorrow 7.30 am.”

For once I gave up my loathing for morning flights. Best to get back from these situations as soon as possible.

As I stood at the counter while my tickets were done, rueing not returning that evening itself, Sushobhan and Sudha, came and stood beside. My friends from Mumbai who had moved to Singapore and came seeking me.

“Good you missed the flight. We get to spend an evening with you.”

Singapore Sunrise

And so we headed into the city we all loved. My frustration at being at a far corner of one of Singapore wiped off.

We headed to the Funan Mall on a lazy Sunday evening at Singapore.

Sushobhan looked at me from the counter at the food court and yelled.

“How do you want your coffee?”

“Cappuccino please.

He grimaced.”

“No I meant with how much sugar.”

“Half a teaspoon.”

And soon he headed towards Sudha and me. The coffee ground, black, mine with a touch of milk, The aroma filled with the visions that Somerset Maugham conjured in a sixteen year old at Calcutta a century back.

Kaya toast with coffee at Ya Kun

We were at Funan Digital Mall Cafe’s Yakun Kaya Toast established 1944. A heritage carried on well into the modern 21st century mall.

And with that I had my first taste of the famous Kaya toast after three earlier visits to the city.

Thin crisp toast. Slim enough to bring back memories of the half pound parutis of Kolkata. The comfort inducing egg yolk, coconut and sugar Kaya mix between them. The coffee and toast a snack you would expect your grand mom to serve you when you came home sad from a bad day at school.

The three of us chatted on the caste politics of North India till it was time to say goodbye to William and Catherine, our warm hosts at the Ya Kun counter. Sushobhan said that Ya Kun has the friendliest staff across the old school Singapore coffee shops. And the one at Funan had the friendliest amongst all Ya Kuns.

This was clearly his Candies.

IMG02245-20111030-1551 IMG02246-20111030-1649 IMG02247-20111030-1650 Sushobhan & Sudha with Catherine & William

We then cabbed it to Chinatown.

There’s something about Chinatowns that make me gurgle with joy. The packed streets, the inevitable temple, the lion with curly mane and a ball in its mouths, the red lamps, fake watches, bags more kitsch than Govinda on his better days, stalls of food, the hanging meat, sliced and stirred on woks, the flavours of the Orient, people sitting on plastic chairs munching away with grim contentment…. I was happy in a way which only a past life analyst could explain.

We shopped for trinkets as Sudha helped me pick some stuff which made sense, horrified by my choices, and then Sushobhan shepherded us to dinner. I watched in dismay as we ignored the stalls in the street and entered what looked like a small hole in the wall but turned out to be a three storied restaurant.

Home Town at China Town.

“Why aren’t we eating on the streets?”

Sushobhan turned to me and said, “the stalls on street are for tourists. Their main aim is to sell you beer.”

I looked at the debris of plates of the touristy chilli crabs on the tables outside and nodded. Anyone who knew would tell you that the pepper crab at Singapore kicks the chilli crab’s ass.     

Then the deal clincher from Sushobhan.

“I have often got Chinese folks here to eat. They have liked it. While chatting with the staff in the restaurant I ask them where they are from. They point out places in the map of China.”

Yes that seemed authentic enough. And, as I do, when I go to a restaurant with someone who has recommended it, I don’t even border with the menu card. I put  myself in Sushobhan’s hands.

Sushobhan ordered a mutton with wild onions and ginger. And a chicken chong xing (pardon my Chinese). With an egg fried rice to go with it.

 Mutton with wild onion & gingerEgg fried rice Chong Xing The Bongo Boys....Sushobhan & me

And for Sudha, who is a vegetarian, there were fried beans and another plate of greens. These came later as they were cooked in separate utensils. The greens were so tantalising that they had us two carnivores diving into her plate once she had her fill. a far cry from the bowl of boiled rice which is all I thought that she’d get earlier.

Apparently the vegetarians don't just get boiled rice at Home Town

Fried beans You'd smile if your meal was cooked specially for you 

Both the meat dishes came covered with fried red chilli. Shukno lonka to us Bengalis. There was a film of oil in which the meats were fried. The meats scrunchy with the chong xing (?) having a slight Kung Pao like batter crunch. The flavours incredible. The deep seated heat of the chillies with the odd peppermint-like numbing bites of Sichuan peppercorns possessive for your attention. Dishes which made you sweat and smile at the same time.

Food cooked and served by a warm and friendly staff Jonathan of Home Town and his team. With some complimentary watermelon at the end to cool you down.

Another of Sushobhan’s happy places.

My first introduction to ‘authentic’ Sichuan cooking as Sushobhan, who has been to the Sichuan province of Chegdu at China, assured me.

   IMG02261-20111030-1830 With Jonathan & his team IMG02263-20111030-1921

I contrasted the dishes at Home Town  with the ‘Sichuan’ beef of Sydney’s Golden Century Seafood in the Chinatown there. Luscious meat sans taste at Sydney. Versus the more rough and gutsy meat here with some pretty stormy bites. 

I was earlier overwhelmed with the amount of Asian available at Sydney thanks to its immigrant population. The dinner at Home Town highlighted how ersatz the Asian at Sydney was.

We headed our ways home after taxi queues which were reminiscent of the auto queues outside Kolkata’s Tollygunge Metro Station in the nineties.

An evening which lifted the spirits and rejuvenated you. One of my favourite places. Great food. Two wonderful people.

I was ready to head back to Mumbai with a Po-like ‘inner peace.’

The great run at Changi airport continued the next morning. No queues at the Singapore Airlines check in counter. No eyebrows raised when I checked in my food bag which was above the baggage allowance. A polite query of sympathy on my Qantas mishap. Mobile charger points with thoughtful little lockers which enabled you to walk around while your Blackberry charged. Internet kiosks everywhere.

And soon I was back home to the reality of the heat and dust of Mumbai.

With a hope that I don’t come across Qantas and its ‘spirit of Australia’ in a long long time.

 

 

 

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