I arrived yesterday morning, a day late (thanks to a 10-hour delay at Pearson Airport that made me miss my connecting flight at Heathrow), but that didn’t matter — despite sleeping only four hours out of the previous 36 (or perhaps because of it), I was giddy with anticipation as the plane made its final approach. It passed through cotton candy clouds and made its descent just as the sun was rising over the water. And then — I know it’s a cliché but I swear I’m not making this up — a rainbow appeared. Hollywood itself couldn’t have scripted a better opening scene.
The first omen for what was to follow came before I’d even left the airport. Because we travelled a lot when we lived in Singapore, I used to spend quite a bit of time in Changi (the best damn airport in the world.) Every time we got off a plane, I would pause for a minute at the top of the stairs overlooking Immigration. Seeing the tidy lines of travellers waiting to get their passports stamped told me I was back in Singapore, and I always took a moment to savour the delicious feeling of coming home that would wash over me. I don’t know whether I arrived in a different terminal or my memory was playing tricks on me, but this time it didn’t look quite the same as I remembered. It certainly didn’t feel the same.
Once I’d stowed my luggage at my friend Kate’s house, I headed out to become reacquainted with my city. It quickly became apparent that I’d forgotten some of the basic rules I learned in Singapore Life 101: Don’t bother blow-drying your hair; it’ll only frizz up in the humidity. Don’t bother putting on makeup; it’ll slide off your face within five minutes. And for heaven’s sake, don’t look to the left before crossing the road unless you want to get pulverized by a Rolls Royce (a fate I managed to avoid, but just barely.)
I decided to visit my old house and get the nostalgia trip out of the way, but getting lost en route wasn’t part of the plan. Who gets lost going home? When I finally stood in front of the house where I’d raised my kids, made great friends and was as happy as I’ve ever been, I was shocked to discover I felt no emotional attachment whatsoever. It was just a place where I once lived, nothing more.
I trudged back to Orchard Road, trying to make sense of what was happening. By this time I’d been outside maybe half an hour. My tank top was soaked, my hair was plastered to the back of my neck, and my throat was parched. My body was giving me a clear message: it was no longer able to cope with the heat and humidity it once handled with ease.
The weirdness continued. My very first purchase in Singapore was a bottle of water — pretty hard to mess that up, right? Wrong! I promptly broke the left-hand rule, handing the money — to a Malay girl in a hijab, to add insult to injury — with my “unclean” left hand. And then, not twenty minutes later, I did it again. I’m blaming that one on jet lag.
It was a strange day, but an illuminating one. I’d been thinking of this trip as a sort of reverse home leave, but clearly, the country has relinquished that role in my life. It has moved on, and so have I. Yesterday I finally understood that while you can revisit a place, there’s no revisiting a time — those days are gone forever. So although I will cherish till my dying day the time I spent here, Singapore no longer has a hold on me. I’m just a tourist now.
That little epiphany released me from the tyranny of regret and made me free to enjoy the rest of my holiday. And now that I’ve stopped looking backwards and can concentrate on the future, I’m free to enjoy the rest of my life as well.