Singapore was a surprise from the very beginning. When my colleague asked whether I could go there to deliver client work, I jumped at this rare opportunity, only to realise that the date of the trip was falling right in the middle of the busiest time I’ve had at work this year. October run me down completely and the last thing I was looking forward to was being stuck in the tiny seat of the economy class for 15 hours. My excitement about this prospect was additionally dimmed by the terrible sinus infection I have been suffering from. I boarded the plane resigned to the idea that I would just deliver my work in Singapore and rest otherwise (after all, I’ve been to Singapore already and there was not that much to see anyways – I thought) during the half day before and after the delivery.
I was flying to Singapore through Dubai, to break the trip in the middle. At the time of booking it seemed like a good idea to have a short one hour stop over, but I did not take into the consideration that getting off the plane would take a lot of that precious time I had for the transfer, leaving me anxious that I might not make it in time to catch my next flight. As I left the plane, I approached the airport attendant who was standing in the jet bridge to ask about the gate for Singapore. Before the young man had a chance to reply, I heard a female voice. A friendly lady in a wheelchair was telling me to stick with her, as she was going to Singapore as well. Elaine, as I soon learnt was her name, told me that as a wheelchair user, she was going to be taken to our gate through a different route and that I should follow her. I wasn’t too sure about that, feeling somewhat like I was “cheating the system”, but before I had a chance to say anything, Elaine was already announcing to the gentleman who was escorting her that I was her grand daughter and was to travel with her to the plane. My adoptive grandma turned out to be an absolute delight to talk to and we stayed chatting until it was time to board the plane.
While most of the flight was pretty uneventful, the last hour of the journey turned out to be rather traumatising. Out of the blue, with no previous signs of turbulence, the plane suddenly begun to shake violently. People who were just standing up fell down on the floor or on fellow passangers, flight attendants hurriedly ordered everyone to take the nearest seat while they fastened their own seatbelts as well, their faces clearly worried. It was that which alarmed me the most. You know you’re in trouble when the crew members are just as scared as you are. I could feel my heart pounding wildly in my chest. In my head an alarm kept on ringing telling me in alternating sequence “this is it. This can’t be happening”. And then it all stoped. The plane regained its balance. Everyone began to look up again, seeking reassurance in others’ nervous smiles. We felt silly for getting so scared, and yet we silently knew that we got a glimpse into an experience that on this occassion was not meant for us, but one that we knew all too well is on everyone’s mind whenever they board the plane. The “what if”s. We will soon be telling our friends and families about this short incident as a little interesting anecdote, one of our many plane stories. But deep down we knew this time we got lucky and that knowledge, that split second before we regained our safety will forever stay with us. That knowledge of what goes on in your mind when you think you’re about to die. The knowledge that it’s not what they show in the movies. There is no life flashing back. It’s just pure fear that makes your heart want to break free from the rib cage to escape its own crazy pace, intertwined with the disbelief. It cannot be happening. Not really. Not now. Not to me. It’s like watching a movie where you have not fully registered yet that you’re the main star of. And then, when you feel it’s all too much, you are saved. No more falling. Everything slowly goes back to the way it was before. Everyone determined to pretend it was not what it was, that they did not feel what they felt. Forty minutes left till we land, I can do this – I kept on telling myself, my heart still struggling to regain its rhythm. Suddenly I could not wait to be in Singapore already.
Quick moves of the cabin luggage, withdrawal of local currency from the cash machine and swift passport control later I was breathing in the hot dampness of Singapore’s tropical air from the taxi. Arrival made easy. Just like everything else in Singapore.
And there it finally was. A place I visited seven years ago. A place that seemed completely unfamiliar. Has Singapore changed so much? Or have I?
The first time I had landed in Singapore I was on my way to Australia and I had decided to stop over in this tiny city-state for a day to break the long trip down under. It was middle of the summer and the hot humidity turned the world outside into a sauna. I remember seeking a temporary respite from the heat under the colourful arches of the South Bridge Road, drinking coconut water in the Chinatown and eating the famous Singapore chilli crab in the airconditioned restaurant. I remember the charming colourful buildings of Clarke Quay and the mocha tinted still water of the Singapore river. I also remember feeling ready to leave the next day. Singapore was mildly interesting with its strange rules and a unique mix of the European and Asian culture, but it felt too familiar, too tame, while I craved an adventure, novelty, something different.
Seven years later however, I found myself texting my husband to tell him I wanted to move here. Singapore no longer seemed dull. It seemed like a perfect place to live. The smallness of the island instead of constraining appeared convenient. I spent three days exploring the city and I was in love. What had seemed so boringly familiar was now tempting me with a promise of a comfortable life in this welcoming country where everyone spoke English and where within a 15 minute (cheap) taxi ride I could move from the office in the financial district to lush greenery of a botanical garden.
I suddenly remembered a photo I took all those years ago in a museum in Singapore.
I came into an old movie showing in one of the museum rooms at the time. A man and a woman in black and white were singing on the screen. One particular line stuck out to me- “at least once in your life you must come to Singapore”. There was something meaningful in that statement at the time, but it was only few years later that the message fully hit me.
I needed to come to Singapore “at least once” to see not only the change in this place but the change in me. In 2010 I was a recent graduate, a single girl who was going on her first solo international trip and who couldn’t wait to see the world. In 2017, I was still just as hungry for the world, but I was an experienced consultant, a coach, a business psychologist happily married to the man I had a crush on all those years ago. A lot has happened in my life in those seven years, and Singapore developed and changed, so did I. And I found this change reassuring. Those years ago I found Singapore disappointing because it didn’t live up to my expectations of the “exotic” at the time. But since then I have traveled to so many places that I was less hungry for the idealised novelty and instead could actually see Singapore the way it was. I could wonder around with curiosity about the way people lived there. The country has inevitably changed since my last visit, but so have my perceptions of it. I was disappointed when I reflected on the pessimism with which I approached this trip, but I felt happy that despite the illness and exhaustion, my love for travel kicked in the moment I landed in Singapore. There were things I had to review around my energy and priorities, but my life was not standing in a place, I wasn’t stuck in my ways, I kept on moving and embracing the change. And I was happy with where life was taking me. I felt like the changes I’ve noticed in the city, reflected the changes in me. Like the city, I was still under construction, but I too, was blossoming, improving and growing. Perhaps “at least once in your life you must come to Singapore” not just to see this unique place, but to really see yourself.