Singapore What the Hell is Wrong With Me?

Here comes a bunch of place names. I’m not making any of them up.

I flew out of Gulung Mulu yesterday and landed in Miri with no idea how I was going to get to Bandar Seri Begawan for my flight the next day. I found a cab driver who was willing to take me. He had wirey, cat-like whiskers growing from moles beneath each eye. After a mutually unenthusiastic negotiation we settled on a price of just under $70 for the two hour drive, but first we had to stop by his home so he could switch cars and grab his passport.

I Sudoku’d my way across Brunei, lamenting only slightly the lack of effort I put into seeing the strange little country.

Overslept and arrived late at the airport this morning, then realized I’d thrown out my ticket. To get a reissue, Royal Brunei Airlines requires you to go in person to the police station and fill out a report.

For real.

With five minutes until the plane began boarding, I threw a tantrum and demanded an alternative. They proposed buying a brand new round-trip ticket and refunding it on arrival in Singapore.

Done. Got on the plane.

Now here I am in Singapore, ticket refunded. I have five days until my flight out of Bangkok to Dubai. I want to go to Laos and dance with some Buddhist monks. I’ve heard tell of a place called Luang Prebang. It’s difficult to get to in the time I have, but possible.

I could pick where to spend my layovers; Singapore, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Vientiane. That decision is easy. I just want a comfortable place to sit and write, and for that, nothing beats Singapore.

Then I think; why even leave the terminal? Changi is one of the finest airports in the world. Swimming pool, free movie theater, orchid garden. I am for want of nothing.

I’m struck with a small epiphany. The distinction between Singapore and its airport is a minor one. The entire country feels like one very large departure lounge; spotlessly clean, no distinct smells, climate-controlled, no one is poor, lots of shopping, no real culture, pleasant enough for the moment, but not a place you want to stay very long.

This makes sense. The city was founded to be a gateway. It is between places, and somehow immune to the realities of true placehood.

In the midst of my cute observation, a much bigger one hits me.

I like being in airports.

I like it a lot. I’m sitting at a mural window watching a thunderstorm wash over tailfins; Qantus, Garuda, Emirates. I can go anywhere from here, because I am nowhere. I have only what I can carry, and that’s enough. I’m in transit.


And for as long as I remain this way, I’m okay. When I stop moving, that’s when problems catch up.

But this isn’t right, is it? Surely this is not the way it should be. Airports are soulless, antiseptic. Why am I at peace here? Why am I only happy when I’m going somewhere?

I don’t know. I suppose, looking at myself from afar, the question itself is fairly obvious.

What is this guy’s deal?

But it’s only just occurred to me. It took 49 flights in twice as many days for me to notice. This is abnormal. Abnormal, maybe, in a bad way.

23 Responses to Singapore What the Hell is Wrong With Me?

  1. Well said. When I’m not traveling, I always forget the feelings of displacement and unattachedness that creep up when I am traveling. And when I am traveling, I’m always surprised by those feelings. You’re a long way from home; I’d say your feelings are normal.

  2. Brian

    When I travel I am most at peace in the airport. Good or bad, it is then that I am finished with my current location. I’m sitting waiting for a plane, having gotten to the airport on time, and now all I have left is to wait and imagine the next destination.

  3. Matt Jurach

    Airports are neither here not there. They are the purest “interplace.” You have no responsibilities or relationships to be concerned about. Everything is provided for you. It is even physically isolated from the normal environment. The only ‘connections’ are between flying hunks of metal.

    The sole thing that requires attention is that you don’t miss your plane (which might be why that scenario gets into dreams). But being in an airport is itself the closest I feel I get to being in a waking dream. Everything about it is already unreal and placeless, and my own perception seems to be all that matters.

  4. Dude, if I’m not in an airport, I better be somewhere cool that required me going to an airport first. There is a great place in the Frankfurt airport where you can sit and watch the fashion-show of international aircraft cruise right in front of you thru the floor-to-ceiling windows. I spend a lot of time there contemplating cool airline tails. Too much time. Maybe I should seek help. Or maybe it’s just because my boyfriend flies for Lufthansa.

    Now, Dubai. What I like about Dubai, is that if you can dream up anything really absurd (like, an entire indoor neighborhood crafted out of fake ice , with a fake mountain range to boot), Dubai has probably already done it. Now that’s forward thinking.

    You rock, I want to be you. I’m halfway you, but not nearly as funny…

  5. Rich

    You like the airport…

    I can’t even imagine. I think I’ve been in about 30 airports and I liked a grand total of none of them. Some have cool architecture, but never enough for me to want to be there more than 1/2 hour.

    Hey, count yourself lucky. You have to be there anyway, might as well be happy there.

  6. Meghan

    With of the risk of sounding like probably three million other people who have submitted comments…

    I’ve never read something that seemed so fitting with my own thoughts. Althought I don’t have the experience/circumstance/etc. that you have had that have shaped you perspectives. I’ve always felt restless. So the only way to “cure” the restlessness was and is to get away, travel, experience something new, etc. Often, I feel at comfort in busy places. It’s as though if white noise was visual, it would be an airport.
    You have opened my eyes to the possibility of being a person who travels. I just never thought I had enough money or that I was savvy enough to manage it. Those are definately the wrong reasons not to travel.

  7. Jon

    It’s a pity you didn’t leave the airport. I’m a Singaporean and I have been living there all my life.

    We do have a culture, even though it’s nowhere near traditional, it’s a mix of everything crammed into one.

    Neither is it spotlessly clean if you stray away from the tourist zones,

    and there are poor people just that you don’t see them on the street.

    Our country isn’t perfect, it’s far from it. But I will always love it and I still think we have a lot to offer if you take away all the facades that hide the true nature of Singapore.

    It’s hard to explain, you need to live here all your life to understand it.

  8. Took almost sixty years to figure out my home is the Globe, though you are more
    likely to find me in Mexico, Peru, or Brazil these days. Twelve states and fifteen cities in the USA; left the USA looking for and finding greener pastures.
    Glad to be temporarily back to hit all those used book stores. Amazon and Ebay keep me happy when the nearest big bookstore is 4,000 miles away. On the cosmic level, home is God, the Divine, Guadalupe, Quan Yin, etc. Dance on, Matt! Join us at DanzarDance. Will send you an invite to first world event. Catch up with me, Sakanta, on Yahoo 360 or My Space.
    Sakanta Running Wolf. One World. One People. One Heart.

  9. My son lives in Singapore and I’ve been there many times. It’s a beautiful place and full of busy, interesting people, as well as lush greenery and some of the most spectacular flowers I’ve ever seen. I love visiting, especially as it’s so (relatively) close to a lot of the rest of Asia. If you were there only five days, I’m not sure if you’re equipped to comment on it so dismissively. I think S’pore, as it’s so annoyingly nicknamed, is a lot more complex than you understand.

  10. Judhi

    Hi Matt,

    Let me know if next time you are going to drop by Singapore.

    I’ll bring you around and see the interesting Singapore’s culture. Singapore Changi airport is great but can be boring after sometimes. But not outside Matt.. it’s not as great as the airport but can’t be boring :)


  11. Blewyn

    The reason you feel at peace in an airport is because you have surrendered control of your time to someone else, and have learned to be OK with that, rather than spend your time fretting about whether you will get there on time. I love that feeling, of being able to switch off and let things go at their own pace.

  12. Wow I completely agree with you. I always thought that I was weird for finding comfort in airports, but I guess there just might be enough adventurers in the world to confide in with this peculiarity. haha. I actually felt at peace when you described the thunderstorm and the tailfins. I dunno…like I said, it’s weird.

    Nice entry by the way. Very entertaining! :)

  13. Diane Choo

    Hi Matt,

    Just read yoou 2003 singapore entry and now only reading your 2006, like the late post dun knoe if your going to to read this cause I’m 1 Year too late.

    As a few have mentioned before me, Singapore is not devoid of culture. I have to admit in the government’s enthusiasim to give tourist something to do (because we dun have a disneyland or amazon forest) they have created a fog over our little island. Get a heartlander Singaporean to take you around, esp into the heartland Kopitiams where elderly uncles sit around talking and then a cosmo Singaporean into our new and hip places. It may not be as in your face as Thailand, but honey it’s def there, thats why you have a few people responding to your culture comment.


  14. Justin

    I was in Singapore in August of 1998. I thought that the city was great. Everyone there spoke english so there was never a problem with communication. I stayed at the Hilton I believe. It was right downtown and about 20 stories tall. If I am wrong someone please tell me. I went to Boat Key (forgive my spelling if it is different) and went to the bars and had a great time. I also went to another island nearby, right on the ocean. I believe that we had to take a skyway type cable way to get there. If tehre is anyone out there who can refresh my memory with names I would be much appreciated. The one sour point that I noticed was the Singapore River. While everything else in the city was beautiful, the river was quite gross. It was gross enough for me to take pictures of it. Anotehr thing, I also noticed that soda pops tasted quite differnt over there. When we got there at about 3:00am I went to the 7/11 that was right accross the street and got a Coke Classic. It was a very differnt taste then what I was accustomed to. The only soda I found that tasted the same was A&W Root Beer. I was with a traveling orchestra and also played at the Victoria Hall. I had a great time.

  15. Anni

    I’m in the same ship (or should I say, plane) with you. To me, airport is somehow a synonym to heaven. I really just love the airport feeling. It definately feels like freedom, since airports are doors to everywhere in the world. All the others say how hectic places they are, but I think they’re kind of peaceful. To watch all the people and planes come and go, with never ending flow… Airports feels safe, because there’s always some life going on. But well, some people have thight scheludes, and it’s understandable they don’t feel the peace. :/
    When I last year went to Aruba, I had first an early morning flight from Helsinki to A-dam, and then I had to wait for 6 hours at Schiphol for my night connection flight to Aruba. Evryone else at my party was really disturbed by that, but I couldn’t been happier. To spend 6 hours in a big airport and see all the fantastic planes I’ve never seen before (I got to see B747 (many of them!) for the first time of my life and it was great) and just chill out waiting for the connection flight to Caribbean. I sure was happy…
    Hmm, well, this turned out to be a fairy big post of random crap… So excuse me for that. 😛
    (And you think you’re abnormal? I’m 16-years-old girl, and after flying just few times, I’ve already sold my soul to planes and airports. Talk about abnormal!)

  16. Eddy Teo

    Well if you didnt step out of changi airport, your missing a lot. Afterall, Singapore is known to be a food paradise. Multi Cultural, meritocratic country but if you stay too long in Singapore you will start to feel bored about it. Nothing much to do except eat, drink, sleep.

  17. Joyce

    Hey, I’m from Brunei. You should’ve stayed in Brunei longer. Its a very nice and unique place. Funny, you went from Malaysia to Brunei (another country), but didn’t bother to take some time to look around before flying to Singapore? You missed a good opportunity there buddy.

  18. Danny

    I agree with Matt, Changi airport is very nice airport, very clean, nice shopping center, and many great facilities.

    @Diane Choo, the island is called “Sentosa” island.

  19. Luchy

    “traveling carries the curse of being at home anywhere yet nowhere. for wherever one is one part of one self remains on another continent”

    don’t know who said it, but love it.

  20. Charles

    hello matt,

    we have just discovered your web site and it is just fabulous! It thrilled us! we have been living in singapore for two months now, and if you come around, just invite yourself, and we promise you we will do some bad french dances specially for you 😉

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