Singapore: What a Difference a Day Makes

Singapore: What a Difference a Day Makes

By Rad Wood

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View out the window of my flight to Singapore.

As a child, my mother occasionally reminds me, I had a tendency for the negative, accompanied by that most unfortunate habit of pouting. If I lost a baseball game, I acted as if the family pet had been run over. I would concentrate on the negative and pout for days. If the family pet was run over, I acted as if I had lost a baseball game. Again, days of pouting ensued. In my mind, the sky was constantly falling, the world was forever ending. Until it wasn’t. The next baseball game would be won, or a few days would pass and a new perspective would emerge. Life was good, again. Until it wasn’t.

In retrospect, it was quite a normal cycle, albeit one needlessly filled with fatalistic pouting. No matter what youthful vigor I put into maintaining or fast-forwarding a feeling or a moment it simply was not possible. Witnessing these highs and lows and my struggle with them, my mom started reminding me, usually during the low moments, but occasionally during the highs as well, that “this too shall pass.” These four basic words provided me much needed comfort and perspective. Every moment passes. Good or bad. Each experience is fleeting, each feeling is impermanent. Wherever you are today, you will not be there tomorrow. Maintain the same physical location tomorrow, your feelings, emotions or thoughts will change. Replicate them, the world around you changes. There is no way out of this riddle. Time moves forward. And, excluding death, we move along with it.

But we move through time differently than through our material realm. To me, the Greeks described this movement best. Our movement through time, they said, is like a man walking backwards. His view of the past is unimpeded. It sits before him a constant reminder. Yet, with his back to the future, he proceeds into the unknown blind to what comes next. Only knowing that something next will come. And, it too shall pass.

As Jamie and I battled mosquitoes and stifling heat, in blacked-out rooms on sweat-drenched beds, it was difficult to internalize how fleeting this experience was. At the time, the night felt endless. Indeed, in the moment, it was difficult to understand the impermanence of our entire India experience. India had been difficult. The constant filth, the frequent smells of human excrement and the lack of electricity that paralyzed the nation had left us tired. The lack of accountability and blatant corruption had left us disenchanted. In the moment, with our backs to the future, we thoughtlessly and blindly moved forward to Singapore and Bali.

Thus India passed into memory and Singapore became our current reality. And what a difference a day made. Less than twenty-four hours removed from the hectic, polluted, tuk-tuk filled streets of India, we were sitting in a fancy Mexican restaurant in the heart of mellow, clean, organized Singapore. Singapore was the antithesis of India. It’s streets and subways were pristine while accountability bordered on oppressive–Singapore imposes the death penalty on drug smugglers, comes down hard on those who break traffic laws and does not allow chewing gum so as to keep the streets clean.

The changes continued. In Singapore, we moved out of our five-dollar-a-night Indian hostels and into a beautifully updated two-bedroom, two-bathroom, turn-of-the-century flat. For free. These accommodations were the courtesy of Eiton, a friend of Jamie’s from high school. Jamie and Eiton had not seen each other since graduation day, eight years prior. They caught up quickly as we sat and drank our Tiger beers. Eiton was a tall, slender man of six and twenty years. He wore his dirty-blonde hair just above his shoulders. His face felt comfortable with a few days of growth on his cheeks. His clothes fit loosely. He came across sincere and welcoming with just the tiniest pinch of shyness. Eiton had lived in Singapore off-and-on for a few years. In the flat we shared, he live with his roommate, who was conveniently back in Boston visiting family, and his lovely Azerbaijani girlfriend Gnell. Prior to Eiton’s most recent stint in Singapore, however, he had lived one of the most eventful lives I had ever heard of first hand.

At the age of twenty, two years into Vanderbilt University, Eiton decided, rather quickly, that he wanted a break. He withdrew from school, bought a ticket to China, and said his goodbyes. Upon his arrival in Beijing, Eiton spoke no Chinese, had only $200 to his name, and carried a very important piece of paper in his pocket. In his pocket, on that piece of paper, was all his knowledge of Beijing–the address of a large dormitory at the university of Beijing that was open to the public for only $2 a night. So it was that Eiton spent the next year of his life in a small dorm room living with, on and under three roommates, in the middle of Beijing. He traded guitar and English lessons for money and the occasional Chinese lesson. Eventually, with his Chinese reaching elementary school level, he began sitting in on university classes. He wrote papers, participated in class and eventually won over the faculty to the tune of full credit and a report card of straight A’s. Which, when he re-enrolled at Vanderbilt, he was able to parlay into a full year’s worth of college credit at a 4.0 GPA. Eiton had had no intention of going to school when he traveled to China. It just kind of worked out. Things seemed to just kind of work out for Eiton.

Like the time, a little over a year ago, when he was dead set on leaving Singapore. He had just quit his job with Microsoft and was looking for another adventure. Cue things just working out. Eiton was at a bar with some friends and was introduced to a fifty-year-old Canadian man who was passing through. Eiton and the Canadian struck up a conversation. The Canadian was a sailer. In two weeks time, he would traverse the Indian ocean on a six-month journey from Singapore to Cape Town, South Africa. “That sounds amazing,” Eiton said, “I wish I could do something like that.” The man’s reply was “you can.” And Eiton did. Two weeks later, despite never having sailed a day in his life, Eiton boarded a forty-five foot sailboat destined for Cape Town. Six months later, he arrived in Cape Town an excellent sailor who had just endured and experienced an entire ocean.

Eiton spoke of these prior experiences, and the countless others that caused our heads to shake with disbelief and our jaws to slacken with awe, with a romantic longing. He said more than once that he was getting the itch to break back out on the open road. I believed him. Eiton’s current existence would fade into the past and at some point he would be on a new adventure. No matter how fleeting.

It was because of Eiton that Jamie and I found ourselves at the fancy Mexican restaurant that first night. (Indeed all of our experiences in Singapore were directly linked to Eiton). It was “Boston Mike’s” going away party. Boston Mike was good friends with Eiton. He had worked in Singapore for years and had become his company’s number one sales rep. After a dispute with a new boss, he threatened to leave. The company pleaded with him to stay. He relented only after they offered him a better job in Hong Kong. That first night was a world away from India. Jamie and I spent the evening chatting with American ex-pats at fancy restaurants, bars and clubs, while drinking beer that made NYC prices seem reasonable–Singapore’s alcohol tax is extremely high thus a bottle of Corona can be $11 and a pint of Heineken can be $16. Throughout the evening, Eiton and Jamie caught up, reminiscing about lacrosse practices, pre-game spaghetti dinners, spring break and old friends. A day removed from Delhi and our world could not have been much more different.

The next day, three days removed from our black-out endured evenings in Agra, Jamie and I would find ourselves at a roof-deck infinity-pool celebrating the birthday of Fadi, a Syrian who had just moved to Singapore three months before, from Dubai. Fadi was friends with Gnell and Eiton. It is a bit understated to call Fadi’s party international. The food was a mix of Indonesian, Middle Eastern, American and Malaysian. The people were a mix of Singaporean, Thai, Indian, Syrian, Lebanese, Mexican, French, Venezuelan, Azerbaijani, Russian, and, of course, American. Memorable party members included, Fadi’s roommate Victor who was from Mexico City, referred to the States as “The Empire” and spoke Spanish, English, and Arabic fluently. It’s not often that I speak Arabic to a Mexican on a roof deck in Singapore, but it happens. There was also Victor’s girlfriend, Stephanie, who was born in Venezuela of a French mother, lived in Paris mostly, spoke Spanish, French, and Australian English fluently. It’s more than a bit funny to hear an Venezuelan-French girl use terms like “heaps” or “let’s get a feed.” I must also mention Kohila, an Indian girl born and raised in Singapore, who worked as a flight attendant and who quickly became Jamie’s shadow for the rest of the evening. So much so that she would follow Eiton, Gnell, Jamie and I to our next party.

Fadi’s birthday party was filled with great conversations and delicious food. Eiton, Jamie and I spent much of our time in the pool, Gnell snapping candids and forcing us to take silly photos. Most of the party remained on the deck. At one point during our swimming, I was dubbed Tarzan as a result of my swarthy looks, long hair and years of football weightlifting. The name quickly stuck.

As night fell upon the party, plans were made to attend the once-a-month hippy party down by the ocean. Before leaving, Jamie and I stole away to look out upon the city from the rooftop as the city’s buildings’ lights rose while the sun fell. How did we end up here from where we were, we asked? We smiled and shook our heads. What a difference a day makes.

That night we went to the hippie party and met up with Gnell’s friend Celine, who was French, lived in Singapore and worked for a UK company. It felt like to be allowed to stay in Singapore one needed to be connected to no less than three different places. I didn’t have the credentials. After an hour of hanging out listening to music and paying too much for beer, we decided to return to Eiton and Gnell’s place. Jamie’s shadow, Kohila, was sad to see us (read Jamie) go and made sure to snatch our email addresses before we left.

The next day, Jamie and I took it easy. We went for a run–a four mile meander through the streets of Singapore–, grabbed lunch–where we accidentally ordered the swine liver platter, which luckily only costed $2.50 and smartly remained uneaten–and bought a kindle off a guy on Craigslist. We met him at a random metro stop and Jamie soon had an ebook to match mine.

That night we went to watch Batman Rises with Gnell, Eiton, Celine and a friend of Celine’s named Claire. The night before, Gnell and Celine had been planning the Batman viewing and I quickly invited Jamie and I along. I’m a sucker for Batman movies.

After the movie, we caught a cab home. Our time in Singapore was coming to a close. The next day, Jamie and I were flying to Bali. Our four days and three nights in Singapore had come and gone. We made new friends, went to fun parties, and even fit in a Hollywood movie evening on the other side of the planet. But time moves forward and we are but passengers in her current. Singapore was now a memory and Bali lay ahead. We did not know what Bali held, only that at some point it too would be a memory. A memory we could look back upon like our Singapore memories and our Indian memories before that. Whatever Bali brought, good or bad, facile or difficult, fun or boring, it too would pass. Our only duty was to enjoy the ride, even if we were blind to where it was going.