I love traveling by land. This way I get to experience something more than I would flying through half of the world in half a day. I can feel the distance in my own personal legs. I feel that I am actually wandering around a part of the world. Recently, I had the perfect companion to these overland journeys: the book “A fortuneteller told me” by Tiziano Terzani, one of my favorite authors, a phenomenal Italian reporter, who was told by some Chinese astrologer or tarot fortune teller that he would die in a plane crash. He decided to take this as a challenge and spent an entire year in an airless journey through Southeast Asia.
Am I ever tempted to change to airplanes? Constantly! After all, no fortune teller told me to avoid them! But then I recall the countless adventures with customs officers at the borders and I appreciate the great first lesson of each country that I want to enter.
A lesson of culture and customs – like the time when the Iranian officials welcomed us with a warm smile, but sniffed each bottle carefully looking for booze, then their faces contorted with effort as they tried to spell Piotrek’s father’s name – Kazimierz (Ali would be so much easier!), and finally they told me to properly hijab myself up.
A lesson of bureaucracy – like when the serious, heavily armed Uzbek officials looked for heavy drugs in my first aid kit and counted the cash we were bringing in ($55) thrice. A lesson of corruption – when each Khmer officer would argue that the visa was more expensive than it actually is and I could either pay an extra $5 or spend several hours on the border fighting the system.
International relations – when the Kazakhs squinted and grinned at our invalid registration documents, because they still enjoyed watching the old Polish TV series Four tank-men and a dog, and when the tiny Chinese customs lady, clearly overwhelmed by the enormity of her own power, analyzed my entire album with photos from Iran, and not just because the pictures were pretty.
We queue just like the rest of the world. There are no VIP gates or a welcome glass of champagne for respected businessmen, there is no quick line for EU citizens, everyone is equal. The border crossing tells a piece of the country. Each border except one: Singapore.
I had to come here twice to understand it – nothing surprised me at first. There was a building, neat and tidy. There were very English-speaking customs officers, elegantly prepared forms, decently organized buses. In no way does this reflect the essence of Singapore.
A display of splendor and perfect organization, for years it’s been the leader of world best airports rankings. If there’s a slight chance that a passenger would expect something from an airport, Changi already has it, better and in several versions. This was the first time I have ever felt that my stay in a country was not full without visiting the airport. It was Changi that told me the story of Singapore, even though I did not step outside the terminal during the second visit.
The visitors make their first steps onto carpet covered floors to lie down comfortably on colourful sofas (I almost overslept and missed my next flight!). They are an introduction to the array of luxury hotels which I will most likely never afford, but that’s fine, ‘coz I was more than happy to accept the invitation from wild, blue-haired Clovie.
The outstanding culinary base, just as in a top class food festival, announces the selection of world’s best food gathered in an inconspicuous hawker centre, or a food court in one of the many shopping malls. Two of Singapore’s favorite pastimes are eating and shopping. Both disciplines can be practiced at world-class level.
The sky train, which runs between the terminals every three minutes, promises that the metro will be organized just as well.
The accumulation of bodyguards, cleaning and maintenance workers lets you believe that everything will be safe and sterile. But in order to make a country safe, first you ought to ban everything. There are many things you’re not allowed to do in Singapore – Clovie looked back three times before she flicked the ash from her cigarette onto the pavement.
Seeing all the electronic, computerized facilities, game areas, an interactive enchanted garden, it’s hard to imagine what might follow until you see a robot collecting dirty trays in the very first visited food court. The Jetsons of today would live in Singapore.
There is also a zone of cultural heritage, to remind that even though this is one of the youngest countries in the world, and the 80s are considered ancient history here, it has its own rich culture, largely based on Chinese traditions. You can get to know it in the Haw Par Villa, the former estate of the Aw brothers, the creators of Tiger Balm – an ointment still recommended for ailments of all nature, joints pain as well as a cold. The brothers wished for their villa to be transformed into a park depicting Chinese legends and beliefs after they both die. This complex includes a corridor illustrating the tortures of the ten circles of Chinese hell and it does not leave much to the imagination.
Finally, there are the city’s landmarks that everyone knows and loves. The elegant airport swimming pool with hot tubs reminds you of the never-ending Infinity Pool on the rooftop of the Marina Bay Sands hotel, and the orchid, sunflower and cactus gardens invite you to stroll through the shimmering Gardens by the Bay. And if someone is not staying in the Marina Bay, has no budget to go for a drink in a fancy bar located in the crown of a Supertree, and on top of everything doesn’t even visit the airport, they must create their Singapore memories in their own way. This is how I know that gin and tonic from a plastic cup, hidden from park security behind your back every few minutes, cannot taste any better than on a bench beside the magical trees with a view over the Marina.
Singapore shines. It must shine. This is its mission, a blessing and a curse at the same time.