How A Bottle Of Cheap Spanish Plonk Can Get You Into Trouble

February 9, 2019

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

Those of you who read my last blog post will know that I have been retracing my grandmother’s journey from Singapore to Penang which she made in the first ever car in Singapore. A hundred and seventeen years later my friend and I are doing it the opposite way. However my journey has had none of the gentility or elegance of hers in 1902. The only similarity is that two unmarried English women are travelling alone through the length of Malaysia. This is how a bottle of cheap Spanish plonk got us into trouble…

After my wonderful reunion in Kuala Lumpur with my old childhood school friend, my companion and I set off for Malacca. A delightful crazy colourful bohemian town. You could call it the Venice of the East. When I say Venice, I mean that it is a town with a canal running through its centre. It is wide and a dingy disgusting colour and tourist boats chug up and down it all day and night. If you fell in I don’t think you would ever be seen again. On either side of the canal is a walkway upon which tables and chairs are set out for the various restaurants, houses and little B&B’s that nestle alongside the canal.

The painting on the walls (some of which look as if they have been done under the influence of some VERY odd chocolate brownies) are pretty wild. Crazy garish colours abound, nightmare faces peer down at you and occasionally there is a really tasteful frontage – but hey ho that is what gives this marvellous town its depth.  I would add that my flippant comment about chocolate brownies is probably completely untrue as Malaysia has draconian rules on drugs. 

The place that everyone  goes to see is Jonker street. There are hoards of Chinese, Malay, Indian and mainland Chinese tourists – and very few Europeans. Everyone wants to soak up a little bit of the atmosphere, eat coconut ice cream and doughnuts, stare at cheap plasticware made in China and, of course, take pictures with selfie sticks which seem to be an Asian obsession.  If you imagine Carnaby Street with stalls down either side, music blaring and  more people than you imagined possible to fit in one tiny street, you’ve got it.

My friend and I felt stifled… the heat was intense and sticky. So we dived into the coolness of an air conditioned shop. It was no ordinary shop.  It had a curved staircase (very unusual as Chinese buildings are usually in straight lines). We were obviously in THE shop of the street – the Harvey Nichols of Malacca! Cool tiles underfoot, beautiful silk clothes hung on rails, discreet non-pushy sales ladies kept their distance. What a joy. The decor was so creative. The rails were made of wooden branches suspended from the ceiling. The changing room was like a private Arabian tent with chairs outside for admiring husbands to watch the trying on parade. I could have happily bought half a dozen dresses they were so lovely – but none of them would have fitted!  I have been on a quest for a new bathing costume for the past week but have not seen one that would encompass my boobs. In fact there would be a “dramatic fall” out and I would probably be arrested!

Talking of arrests. Our next objective was to find a taxi to take us through the border to Singapore airport.  Surprise surprise we could not find one. Finally we ordered a grab car … a bit like Uber. We got in the car having stowed our luggage in the boot and said we wanted to go over the causeway to the border and on to Changi airport.  

“I take you. But first I have to ask you no bad things in your luggage?”
“No of course not” I said “I am a grandmother.”  

Having assured him we had nothing to declare we finally agreed on a price for the three hour journey – we didn’t think it would take that long but he was right. We were stationary on the causeway, nose to tail, for an hour -how anyone can bear to do that journey every day I just don’t know but many do as Singapore is so expensive to live in. 

Finally we got to the Singapore Customs and Immigration. We were asked to pop the boot. An official peered in and asked my friend to open her case. Whereupon he immediately pulled out a bottle of cheap red wine that we had bought in Penang. Horror! One bottle of wine! His face changed and, as he held the offending bottle at arm’s length, our driver was instructed to move out of the queue and into a loading bay.

My heart went out to our driver who was now beside himself. From his point of view he had been driving to the border with two seemingly nice old ladies. Now he thinks he is aiding and abetting two blonde drug smugglers (and what he didn’t know was that I had two more bottles in MY bag!)

My friend was hauled out to be interviewed and the driver was taken away – apparently he had not paid some registration fee. I was left alone in the car.  I have to say I too was beginning to get a little concerned. What was so awful? You are always allowed two litres for your own consumption wherever you go. Everywhere it seems EXCEPT the border to Singapore from Malaysia.

Another customs officer came out and motioned me to get out of the car. The games up I thought – time to tell them about the other bottles. My friend was  sitting in the waiting room. In  ventriloquist mode I hissed at her “What about the other gottle!”  Her steely eyed look silenced me.

With that ANOTHER customs man came in and whisked her away.  I tried not to look guilty, but how does one look innocent? I looked around for the CCTV. They would be sure to be watching my body language. I yawned, I tried to look relaxed and unworried, I stretched. Was I going too far?

Suddenly my friend returned. She had been taken into a room on her own and given a proper wigging. Apparently the Malaysia Singapore causeway has masses of workers going over every day and the rule is no one is allowed even a single bottle of alcohol. Well, no one told us.

So they told her she had to pay a fine based on the value of the wine. That was the next problem. Had it been Chateaux Margaux they would have known what to charge us, but this was some cheap Spanish wine with a value of £3. We offered to ditch it as it was going to take so long to work out the fine but apparently to dispose of it would take even longer! In the end we paid £7 and were free to go. I couldn’t get in our car fast enough – my granny certainly never had this sort of trouble ! 

The colour came back into our driver’s face and we resumed our journey to the airport through a monsoon.. At times the rain was so hard we had to drive at five miles an hour. We gave the driver a very generous tip which he was overjoyed with. He insisted on taking a picture of us, though whether he was going to show it to his wife or post it to warn other drivers I don’t know! 

We were in Singapore at last… what possibly could go wrong!!!? 

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