I arrived at the Changi Airport in Singapore at seven p.m. local time on Friday night after forty-one hours living in four different airports. Maybe if the unthinkable stint hadn’t begun at six in the morning after an eighteen hour session of boozing and no sleep, it would have been manageable. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I made my way through the fantastically modernized airport with the taste of cheap wine in my mouth, and the taste for a cigarette even stronger. I had heard horror stories of Singapore, and the strict enforcement of any and every law from jay walking to littering, including mandatory public hanging of anyone caught with any illegal substance. (Luckily I had remembered to toss the half a joint worth of pot that I had been carrying around when I got to Auckland.) I heard that smoking cigarettes was not allowed in public or in any covered places, but as far as I could figure, that pretty much meant anywhere. Then, a small, secret relief relaxed the exhausted tension in my face. Just minutes away from my arriving gate I found an outdoor smoking area. I quickly headed up the stairs and out onto the patio-bar into my first taste of the palpable Singapore heat. I threw my carry-on bag down to spark a beyond-needed cigarette after four hours, two beers, and two mini-bottles of wine on the last leg of my journey from Wellington. As I sucked the first, sweet drag in ineffable relief I let the awareness of my surroundings permeate my already sweat-covered skin.

While Changi Airport was a marvel of futuristic convenience, streamlining hollow-faced strangers to their next consumer-driven destination, the nervous flutter in my gut wasn’t fooled. The next three months that lay ahead began to trace themselves through me in uncertain vines. I was more alone on this bench in this sweater of Asian humidity, in this most foreign of places, than I had ever been before in my life. I had no travel guide, no ideas, no plans, no friends, no phone, and no connection to anything I know other than whatever internet café I may stumble upon along the way. I had with me thirteen kilograms of backpack and clothes, a laptop, a few travel suggestions from friends, and enough money to travel on about forty New Zealand dollars a day for the next three months. As excited as I had been in the weeks leading up to this adventure, two tired days in lonely airports had only served to dig my solitary sense of self deeper. As it was, my cigarette was finished and it was time to make my way towards the one reservation I had: a hostel in the heart of Chinatown.

Singapore is a canvas splatter-painted with language and simultaneously married, and competing cultures. Standing next to my rucksack on the crowded metro rail as I made my way into the city’s heartbeat, I noticed the four official languages posted on every sign. The faces lining the endlessly long train blended from Chinese to Indian to Malay and every shade in between. With tourist tattooed across my curious Western face, I took out my camera to snap a photo of the snaking train, whose rail cars slowly shrunk and disappeared into the infinity of distance as the near silent train breezed effortlessly down the curving track.

Goes on for days...

Before I knew it, it was time to alight at my stop (as the soft voice of the metro requests). As I stepped out on to the crowded streets of Chinatown, with hawker stalls lining the road-less alley as far as I could see, the humidity, again, swallowed me whole. Luckily, the hostel’s website was no lie and the entrance was literally footsteps away from the MRT stop. After almost two straight days spent in airports, lugging too many bags of oversized gear on my weak and tiny frame, I checked in, threw my bags into the packed twelve person dorm room, and collapsed onto the bed in utter, humid, lost, sweaty, tropical, traveling exhaustion. My excursion around Southeast Asia had officially begun.

I awoke early the next morning, planning to absorb as much of the city as possible before heading north into Peninsular Malaysia. I didn’t know much about Singapore, but I knew that the tiny city-state was over-populated, over-developed, and over-regulated. Even from the quaint and busy authenticity of Chinatown, the flagstaffs of twentieth century industry peeked above the carved roofs of ancient temples.

Past and Future

Why is there a surfboard on top of those buildings?

Singapore River

Miracles of modern engineering leapt from the horizon in daring postures, challenging one another to battles of modernity and design. With over five million people living on the island city-state of Singapore it is the second most densely populated country in the world, after Monaco, and it shows. The streets are a constant push and pull, hurried faces and cell phones pressed to cheeks like lovers. Making my way along the river that cuts through the heart of the city, I strolled silent and slow down towards the Marina, reading of the city’s history on statues and monuments as I walked. Past the Marina I came across the Ritz Carlton, and remembered there is a free art tour through the hotel’s SGD$5 million collection. I wandered up the steep driveway of the luxurious hotel and lost myself in a momentary daydream of king size beds with thousand thread count sheets and champagne breakfast room service. “Are you a guest of the hotel, miss?” The concierge’s question snapped me briskly from my reverie. “I wish,” I replied, and exchanged my passport to the desk for an iPod to tour the famed collection of contemporary art. Singapore is easily the most expensive city in Southeast Asia, and considering the New Zealand dollar is even weaker than the Singapore dollar, I was hard pressed to find free activities in the racing metropolis. Even the TIME Magazine article that recommended this tour to me had “plastic surgery” listed as the fourth best thing to do in twenty-four hours. As it was, I sauntered slowly through the miraculous structure, gazing in awe at the various pieces of art, and enjoying the sweet relief from the humid air outside, bloated with rain just aching to fall.

Lobby at the Ritz

Frank Stella's Moby Dick

By the time I finished wandering around the Ritz, the sky could no longer take the pressure, and warm rain began to drench the city. There is no drizzling in Singapore and as buckets pissed down on me, I hurried to find shelter.

when it rains it fucking pours

If there is one thing I learned about Singapore, the closest shelter is always a mall. Of the four MRT stops I saw, three of them were in malls. The bus station is in a mall, there is a mall dedicated to sporting goods, another for designer gear, another for electronics, and plenty for everything. If there isn’t a Louis Vuitton bag on your arm, then there better be a Gucci. The city is obsessed with shopping, and I found myself for the first time in my life untempted by material goods. There was a time when I would have sold my soul for a pair of Jimmy Choos. When I racked up more than fifteen thousand dollars in credit card debt, most of which fueled the oversized wardrobe I was faced with as I left my life in North Carolina behind. After donating an entire Jeep Cherokee full of clothes to a Family Crisis Ministry, after giving away endless amounts to friends and family, when I left DC for New Zealand, I still had suitcases and garbage bags full of tops and dresses, skirts and sweaters. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume I had accumulated over the years. As I attempted to unwind the ties these possessions twisted round me, I found myself all the more happy to be liberated. In my thrift store button down and dirty ten dollar shorts, a calm smile sneaked across my face in the swamp of materialism that is the Singapore streets. Every inch of me knew at that moment what really matters in the world, what really matters to me, and that I would never get caught in that trap again. And at thirteen Singapore dollars a beer, I also knew it was time to get out of this city.

Traveler’s Note: Despite the city’s obsession with shopping, there is one thing they do right: food. Don’t leave the city without heading to Tan Quee Lan Street for some Chinese Steamboat. Choose your broth, meat, organs, seafood, vegetables, and noodles and prepare yourself for a marathon of eating. Somewhere between soup and Chinese fondue, Steamboat (or Hot Pot) is a must to complete any visit. Just make sure you go hungry, and bring lots of friends.

Five Plates Deep into the Singapore Steamboat