In honor of my one year anniversary of traveling to Singapore, here is a little blog I wrote but never published. I thought it might be fun to do so now.
I’ve never been alone in another country before.
As the water ripples toward me, this is what I’m thinking about. Any time I travel, I am always with someone, family, friends, co-workers. Right now, I have none of those people with me. In all of Singapore, there is not a single person who knows me as anything other than a guest at the hotel.
White verandas around the pool leave diagonal stripes of late afternoon sun across the water. Their roofs flip out like 1970s haircuts. A woman, a stranger to me, swims laps, bobbing up with a fish mouth for a gulp of air every few seconds. Steel and glass buildings sprout up in the background, on the verge of twinkling in the dusk.
I’m a little sad. My travel companion and best friend has just left. Tomorrow, I will spend one of my last days in Singapore completely alone.
I don’t mind being alone. I like the solitude. But after a week together exploring the country, it feels a little strange here without her. The trip has shifted from shared experiences to solo adventures, which admittedly scares me.
Tomorrow I plan to go to an island. Or rather, another island, since I’m currently on the main island of Singapore. Alone I’ll take an hour-long subway and bus ride to a rickety boat to an oasis vastly different from the sprawling city I’ve called home for the last week.
The idea of leaving the safety of the mainland terrifies me. That’s why I’m doing it. It’s my new motto. If it scares me, I have to do it.
The last day my best friend and I spent together still lingers. Each moment winding down to a final meal during a rainstorm. Emotions cycled through me, gratefulness, sadness, a bit of anxiety.
We wandered through Lucky Plaza, stuffed with souvenir shops. Spent more than probably should have been on the kinds of tchotchkes we ridicule in the states when tourists buy them. That is the double standard of being a traveler. The rules of the natives are different than the rules of the visitors. I need to remember that next time I see a tourist buy an I heart NY t-shirt.
As I sit here by the pool, an empty seat next to me, the bugs nip at my legs like they are trying to keep me company. They never nipped before when my friend and I sat here during our relaxing in-between moments. Maybe the overhead fan of our spot near the pool kept them away, a spot now taken by other people. Maybe something about being alone makes me notice them.
The pool glows with an alien blue-green at the bottom. The people in the water look like they’re swimming in uranium.
Tonight I’ll be sad and I’ll think of our past adventures.
Tomorrow I make my own.
The morning breaks through a crack in my blackout shades. I set my alarm to rise early. From experience, I know the heat of the afternoon sun in Singapore is oppressive, even for someone like me who loves the sticky sweetness of a humid summer.
There are many smaller islands to explore in Singapore. More than there is time for on this trip. The most popular include St. John’s Island, Lazarus Island or Sentoza Island, known for their beautiful beaches.
I’ve chosen to visit a different sort of island called Pulau Ubin, which means “Granite Island” in Malay, at the suggestion of a very friendly taxi driver. After asking about our time so far in Singapore, and hearing how we preferred the unusual to the typical tourist experiences, the taxi driver deemed Pulau Ubin the island most suited for us.
Unfortunately, there is no “us” anymore. So, I will go alone.
The Singapore mainland is a tribute to modernity and architectural beauty. Even the national library scrapes at the skies. People and cars fill the sidewalks and streets. It’s a place of orderly bustle.
Pulau Ubin is the opposite. With three main “roads,” only a few cars, mostly old vans for tours, and colorful one-level houses virtually untouched since mid-century, this verdant Singapore outpost promises a time-bending experience.
In my hotel room, I slather up with a thick amount of sunblock and another layer of bug spray, having been warned about both sun and bug exposure. Covered in sticky goo, I do my best not to sully the pristine bus and subway I must take to the Changi Point Ferry Terminal.
The boats to Pulau Ubin, called bumboats, provide the first inkling of how different the island will be from the mainland. The flat, box-shaped tail dips low into the water as we step down into the passenger area, making me instantly understand the very strict person-limit. Water splashes up through the open back and windows.
Across the blue waters, a weathered dock juts out from a shoreline tangled with bright green, leafy trees. My heart speeds up. I’ve done a small bit of research. Enough to know my first step should be to rent a bike and get in as much time around the island before the noon sun rises. Other than that, I don’t really know what to expect.
The town, if it could be called that, consists of upwards of ten different bike shops, a sign with a map, a visitor building and almost nothing else. Eschewing the busy shops right off the dock, I head further down the road to a quieter bike shop, mostly because I don’t like crowds. This turns out to be an unintentionally smart choice, I get a bike faster and cheaper than the earlier shops.
Maybe because I like to anthropomorphize objects or maybe because I’m lonely, I name the bike. She’s a rusty old thing with squeaky, unreliable brakes and thick padded seat. So I name her Rusty. Not very inventive, I know. But it’s already getting hot and my inventiveness is inversely related to the availability of air conditioning.
The black paved road, barely large enough for one car to fit, weaves out of the town, where I pass a few beach-side eateries boasting of fruity drinks and snacks. They have thin canvas roofs, open sides and plastic chairs. Collarless stray dogs roam about, mingling with the humans as if to say “this is our place too, don’t even try to make us leave.”
At my first choice, I opted to check out a butterfly sanctuary I’ve heard about. It’s uphill. I’m not thrilled about this but I persevere, the sun beating down on my shoulders. I’d love to say I had the photography skills to capture the beauty of the butterfly hill. I spend a large amount of time standing very still with my camera waiting for a butterfly to land just in the right spot to snap a picture or chasing after them as if they will somehow freeze in the moment so I can snap a shot. None of this happens. All of my pictures blur, reminding me nature doesn’t care about Instagram.
Perhaps neither should I.
I venture forward toward a temple, curious to see if religion looks any different in a place where there are more trees than people. Birds chirp on repeat as I leave my bike next to the road and approach on foot. Their sound is an incessant, yet somehow soothing, roll into a shriek.
A faded mural runs up the wall as I walk up the incline. A shrine awaits at the center of an open room. I am reluctant to approach, afraid I might disturb something more ancient than me. Instead, I look from afar, watching smoke trickle from some unseen vessel.
This place could be anywhere. There is nothing here that speaks to the modern world. If not for the cement, I could have stepped back in time 400 years.
I take out my phone to snap a few pictures. It feels wrong. Phones don’t belong on this island. You should be required to leave them in the boat. If you’re a time traveler, you can’t sully the past with modern technology, it’s not right.
On tiptoes, I return to my bike with a sense of quiet settling around me, a peacefulness.
The prospect of a steep decline to my left sends me back to the crossroads, where this time I choose the other direction, which promises a rougher trail and more jungle.
The verdant leaves crush against the path the further I go. The pavement turns to mud and sand. I pass a wetland filled with the largest pond fronts I’ve ever seen. The air smells like, well nothing, except the chlorophyll of the leaves.
Inside the thick brambles, I spot the occasional sun-dappled house through the trees, with flat roofs and clothes hanging from the eaves, reminding me this isn’t just a tourist destination, people live here. I wonder what makes people decide to live a 15-minute boat ride from a vast, sleek city. They chose this remote place, almost lost to time.
As I near the shore the track turns so thick my tire gets stuck and I fall off my bike. This is no surprise since it’s true you always remember how to ride a bike, but you don’t always remember how to ride it well. And Rusty is no pristine ten-speed. She aches with every push, like an old woman walking up the stairs. But, she also forces me to take my time, as if saying to me “why be in a hurry?”
Rusty strands me at a small peninsula. A group of children, clearly there for a school trip, giggle as they walk by. I walk out on the peninsula and peer into the vast ocean. It reminds me this island is a speck in the world and I am a speck on the island. Places like this make me appreciate the insignificance of life, which somehow makes it feel more precious.
On my way back to the crossroads, I stop at a house-turned-museum, where tourists can experience the type of house and living on the island from 50 years ago, the type that hasn’t seemed to change much. I wonder, ignorantly, if the people here have televisions and sort of hope that they don’t.
There is something about this place, something innocent and beautiful as if the jungle keeps the rest of the horrors at bay. I’m romanticizing. I know that. I’m sure the people who live here have problems like everyone else. But the peacefulness of the place takes over the cells in my body, relaxing them one moment at a time.
The heat becomes too much to bear. I’ve finished my bottle of water and my body tells me another won’t give me energy. I’ve never sweat so much in my life. I didn’t even think myself capable.
I return the bike and head back to the boat dock, slumping into my seat on the boat. The wake splashes against the back, bobbing as we leave. The island gets smaller. I lean my head on the ledge and watch the shoreline become a thin line in the distance, holding onto a feeling I don’t quite understand yet. Maybe I never will.