The prospect of 12 hours in Singapore airport gives rise to an existential crisis
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My trip overseas had been a failure, and not even a spectacular one. I’d gone away only with the vague plan of coming home feeling better. I sat around for days in romantic villas, alone, reading books by the dim glow of mood lighting, bobbed around in tropical waters, and never really worked out what I was supposed to be doing.
Any hope for redemption lay on my way home, in that great tourist mecca: Singapore airport. I had 12 hours between flights, and though I had fluffed the trip, I was determined to ace the stopover.
In an airport you can be anyone: no one knows your story; they only know you’re going somewhere. It helps if you dress for the occasion. At 8.55 am I strode into the terminal with the feeling that I had my whole life ahead of me, probably because I hadn’t done anything with it yet. But I was doing my best impersonation of a jetsetter: polished sneakers, my cleanest shirt and a hat from a hotel’s lost property.
“Transiting, sir?” a woman in uniform asked.
I doffed my hat and replied, “Thank you, madam. I’m just returning from Indonesia,” without breaking stride.
Inside, people bustled around on jazzy carpets, pianos tinkled in the background, and tropical plants had the time of their lives in the rich soils of the atrium. For the next two hours I lived like a wealthy man: I strolled through butterfly gardens, drank mocktails by a rooftop pool, and lounged in massage chairs while watching the common people rush for their flights.
In the old days, only the rich and glamorous could afford air travel. Whenever I’m around duty-free shops I start to believe that I have more money than I actually do. Woozy from all the perfume, I imagine myself to be some sort of high-flyer – a person who can afford $300 bags, based mainly on the irrefutable evidence that I’m standing in a shop with $300 bags in it.
Worse is when I get the idea that by shopping duty-free I’m somehow rorting the system. That with a few cunning purchases I could totally reverse my fortunes. I could buy all the things that rich people buy but at duty-free prices, while everyone else (those fools!) is stuck paying full price. Usually, only the imminent departure of my flight can save me from myself. But that was still hours away, which is how I came to be buying up discounted bottles of Chartreuse.
It was thrilling, waving my credit card around and speaking in a manlier voice than usual. But it wore off soon enough. I stood in the thoroughfare holding all the Chartreuse, and began to wonder if the trappings of flying – the bag checks, the security, the wand waving – were just sneaky ways of making us feel like members of some high society, more distinguished than the bums outside.
I had been travelling for three weeks and had failed, as usual, to have any of the meaningful revelations that travel is famous for, so I was hoping to knock together a few thoughts on the way home.
At 11.45 am I took a seat by the windows and sat for the longest time reflecting on my trip until, at 11.52, I looked up and was horrified to see how little time had passed. The minutes creaked by. I hummed a few tunes, gave whistling a try, did a few foot dangles. I tried reading from a “beautiful and lyrical” novel, but obviously I hadn’t self-improved enough to appreciate its subtle charms. Craving some action, I kept wandering over to the shelves filled with airport novels. But I should be reading the prize winners, I thought sadly. There were only nine more hours until the end of my trip and I was still the same shitty person as I’d been before.
On the tarmac, nothing much was happening except the quiet miracle of flight. Nothing was happening in my book, either. I checked. I was itching for someone to talk to. People rarely mention how claustrophobic travelling is. You can go to the furthest flung lands, but you can’t escape your own banal interior monologue. (That jungle’s the same colour as the rug in my office! This taxi smells like Grandma!) It’s no wonder people come home. I went over to the luggage store and asked the salesperson to tell me about Samsonite again, but her heart wasn’t in it. People were leaving the country rather than talking to me, and it was refilling at the same rate with new people who didn’t want to talk to me either. So, for lack of better ideas, and because it was almost lunchtime, I toddled over to one of the bars.
The only possibly meaningful thing that had happened on my whole trip was that I had seen a manta ray. She had glided past with such majesty that I was sure it meant something. I had bobbed hopefully nearby, but whatever message she was sending was distorted by the choppy waves and all the other snorkellers jostling for a photo. Close up she looked harried, as though she had once been the guardian of an ancient secret but now she was just trying to get by.
Everyone else comes home with photos of themselves sitting on beaches, atop mountains or posing with smiling orphans (never the miserable ones). But most of travel is the in-between bits: sitting for hours at the wrong bus stop, or lying around in cheap hotels trying not to masturbate because you’re supposed to be seeing some temples later. Or, like me in the bar, practising the fine art of being bored.
I texted my religious brother back home. “Is this what being a Christian is like? Just sitting around waiting for your plane to come?”
He wrote back, “Hey bud! Pretty busy rn, let’s talk later. We don’t just sit around you know …”
I sat there and thought about that.
The closest I’ve come to “capturing” the travel experience was in New Zealand, in the days of film cameras. I came home to my tent drunk one night, and went through a roll of film using flash photography to try to find my torch. Travel? There it is.
At 2 pm I tried a different bar. You can do that in Singapore airport. I went up to the rooftop and moped around in the cactus garden while the sun burned through the clouds. I hate afternoons. I can’t think of a single good thing that’s happened between the hours of 2 and 4 pm. And every day they lie in wait, lurking like a midlife crisis. The cactus garden bar served beers at least, so I put down my bag, my book and the Chartreuse, and ordered one. I sipped on my beer, poked a few cactuses. One of the spines stuck right in my finger, which is exactly what you’d expect from an afternoon.
At 3.30 pm my flight felt further away than it had at 8.55 am.
At 3.45 I wondered if I would find God.
Then, at 4 pm, the sun dipped below the skyline of cactuses, and the afternoon – that horror show – was over. Time seemed to find its rhythm again, and the next few hours skipped along. At 8.20 pm, finally, for the first time on my trip, something happened: my plane started taxiing off without me.
As to my actual departure time, it’s clear I’d been going more by vibe than, say, what was written on the ticket. It seems an oversight now, not to have spent more of the intervening hours studying my boarding pass. When my flight was in the final stages of boarding, I’d been in one of the massage chairs, reading a self-help book about failure.
My leisurely 12-hour stopover culminated in a desperate sprint for the boarding gate, and running into a glass door. The airline employee had some sympathy, but mostly for the door.
“Is that my plane?” I asked, clutching my nose and pointing outside.
“That was your plane, sir.”
I sprinted over to the transfer desk, thinking frantically about all the things I could have done differently with my time. I yelled, “Stop the plane!”
“Name, please,” said the woman at the desk.
“Robert Skinner,” I panted. “With a ‘J’. In the middle, I mean. That’s my middle name. Well, not ‘J’, obviously. Joseph. Listen, I’m supposed to be on that flight.”
“Sir, that flight is gone.”
And it was true. I could no longer tell what I was pointing at. I sagged like a tent.
She punched a few buttons, made a call, and then said, “We’re sending someone over.”
“To put me on another flight?” I asked, hopefully.
“To escort you out of the airport, sir. Only passengers with valid tickets are allowed inside the transit area.”
A young gentleman from the airline came over to accompany me. As I was gathering my things he spotted the Chartreuse.
“Sir, you’re going to have to return those bottles.”
He strode through the shop and I followed sheepishly like a shoplifting child. An older woman at the checkout looked from me to the bottles and back again.
“You no want?”
“Can’t have,” I said.
Then she pointed at me. “You very sad man.”
The airline guy and I headed towards immigration, and he made some calls as we whooshed along.
“So, we have no more flights leaving tonight?” he said on his phone. “What about tomorrow morning? Oh … Wednesday? Thursday?”
Then he listed off some other days of the week. After three weeks of drifting aimlessly through Indonesia, and so close to home, disaster had struck. It felt fantastic. Say what you will about rock bottom, at least it’s sturdy.
At immigration, under “primary reason for visiting Singapore”, I wrote “Idiot”. And as they led me through customs, I was grinning like one too.