DME: 2 hours Ural Airlines, Ellinair, Lot, Vim, Transaero, Uzbekistan Air—the planes dotting the runways in Moscow immediately signaled that I was somewhere off any map I’d ever been on. It was surprisingly beautiful—the airport had been visibly carved out of the dense, fairytale forest blanketing the Russian countryside Ochre bales of hay sat drying near the runways next to overgrown fields dotted with defunct leer jets instead of grazing livestock.
After we landed on the unsettlingly bumpy runway and were welcomed to Russia by Olga and her thick, stereotypical accent, we disembarked the plane, eager to stretch our legs for a couple of hours before returning to our seats for another 11-hour flight. Walking up the jetway, a construction project on the terminal was visible—the glossy metal tiles that gave the building a sheen of contemporary adeptness had been stripped away and underneath, shotty concrete blocks with sloppy mortar peaked out.
We were ushered into the international arrivals area, again all gloss and sans-serif illuminated signs, only to find ourselves in the midst of seething mass of confused passengers who had quickly discovered the signs had little bearing to reality. Eventually spotting a petite Singapore Air attendant hiding around a corner and directing a single line of transit travelers up an escalator, we separated ourselves from the crowd, ready to see what sort of Russian experience we could conjure up for an hour or two.
Our dreams of caviar and chilled vodka were dashed when at the top of the escalator we were met with another line—this one incomprehensibly snaking around the outside of a large room, forcing us into an awkward corkscrew spiral. A sole airport employee, an annoyingly cool-headed girl who couldn’t have been more than 25, was leisurely checking everyone’s passports and onward tickets before letting them through a door, presumably to the terminal.
The line inched along, I practiced reading the Cyrillic signs in the room but quickly ran out of ammunition there (it wasn’t that big of a room). Finally we were admitted through the door to…another line—this one for the the most inefficient security screening set-up ever. All in the space of about 10 feet, we disemboweled our carry-ons to send through the x-ray machine, took off whatever combination of shoes, jackets and jewelry they’d decided was a “threat” today and watched incredulously as the women checking passports at the door (yes, less than five feet from the last woman checking passports) unblinkingly roped off the door mid-stream of travelers to go inexplicably stand on the other side of the room, adjust her hair (the scrunchie lives on!) and chat with her colleagues (coffee break?).
After one more passport check, we were finally admitted into the terminal—just in time to join the queue to re-board our flight. A cursory lap of the terminal assured us weren’t missing much, duty-free perfumeries wafted nauseatingly heady combinations of scents, several outlets of Coffee Mania (Russian Starbucks?) competed for real estate and duty-free mega-bottles of liquor shared shelves with $400 tins of caviar. As we lined up to re-board, a girl handing out promotional flyers printed to look like watermelon slices walked along in search of takers. Her bright floral sundress, yellow ballet flats and hair wreathed with flowers looked wildly out of place amid the dour fashions and attitudes that permeated the place.
SIN: 30 hours I’ll admit it—I didn’t expect to like Singapore. I expected an Asian Disneyland full of ultra-sanitized glamor and glitz, overpriced shops and food, eerily clean streets and soulless inhabitants whose only joy in life was indulging in the delectable multi-ethnic street food politely hawked in multi-story malls designed to keep the streets clean of such nuisances.
And in reality? It is clean. Very clean. Airport bathroom floors you could eat off of clean. Touch-screen surveys as you walk out of the bathrooms implore you to “rate our toilets” (and assure you the monitors are sanitized regularly). The MRT (metro) trains are clean. The streets are free from trash and chewing gum (outlawed in Singapore as a public nuisance) And it is efficient. The moment you clear immigration you’re met with another touch-screen survey. Weirdly, once you’d touched the broad smiley face indicating an “excellent” experience, you’re then prompted to explain why it was so good: the length of the queue, the efficiency of the immigration process or the pleasant attitude of your immigration official… you cannot select more than one option. We laughed it off—weird!—but it was actually the first glance of something deeper, troubling and endemic to the city, we just didn’t know it yet.
The MRT (metro) runs right to the airport making getting yourself around a breeze. Newly endowed with crisp Singaporean dollars from the airport ATMs, we descended to station to buy tickets from one of the two ticket machines (two for an entire international airport?) only to discover, along with virtually everyone else in line, that the machines would not take $10 bills unless your tickets were over $6 and that it cost conveniently less than $3 to get just about anywhere in the city. And, of course, tickets were destination specific, so it’s not like you could just team up with whomever was behind you in line and buy your tickets together. Again, on its own this just seemed like an annoying oversight (or a case for hiring a UX designer), but it was also another example of the weird underlying lack of humanism that seemed to make this place tick.
Aboard the MRT, identical signs were posted next to every door—No Smoking ($1000 fine), No Eating or Drinking ($500 fine), No Flammable Goods ($5000 fine), No Durian (no fine—just don’t be an asshole). Cutesy cartoon signs implored you to give up your seat for elderly or infirm passengers, stow your bags on the door, move to the center of the car to make more room for others and not to play your music too loud all under the a cutesy hashtag about thoughtfulness. The irony of instituting laws around “thoughtfulness” completely devaluing the concept of being thoughtful seemed to be lost. Despite the island’s British heritage, I have a strong feeling that wry humor is not a hit in these parts. The sign about keeping the noise level down seems superfluous as well—no matter how busy, every train and station was eerily quiet. Each person seemed to be watching a movie on their iThingy, and even if you boarded with your friends or co-workers there was a unspoken rule—you simply did not talk. The conspiracy of the majority seemed have been harnessed to brilliant effect by the Singaporean government.
In an attempt to outrun our impending jet lag, we set out early for one of the ubiquitous hawker centers in search of something spicy and uniquely Singaporean for breakfast. The warrenlike concrete building doubled as a wetmarket and snack hall. It smelled like fish and somewhat to my delight, there was actually some trash lying about. Government healthcode signs were displayed at each stall, but almost everyone seemed to have garnered a “B” and no-one much seemed to care, the most popular stalls certainly did not correlate with the few with “A”s.
I approached one stall for a bowl of spicy prawn and pork bone noodle soup. The toothless propritor told me he’d been working the stall since he was a child—60 years. It was baffling to think of the changes he must have seen in his lifetime. From pre-independence to the contemporary age. I asked him about that and he shrugged, possibly because of the language gap or maybe just because it was simply reality for him and how can you explain what’s perfectly normal, and instead recommended a fresh starfruit and lychee smoothie from the stall next door to accompany my breakfast.
After wandering through Chinatown, Little India, the Raffles Hotel, the Marina Sands, and it’s multi-story all-designer shopping mall, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t left this US, that I was in some sort of slightly twisted mashup of Miami and San Francisco. That afternoon as we looked out on the city, from “Singapore’s only microbrewery” on the 33rd floor of an anonymous financial building, the harborfront with its iconic skyline was barely visible through a thick, foul-smelling cloud. “We call it ‘haze’,” said our waitress, though sheepishly admitted it was a bit worse than usual today on account of the burning palm plantations of Borneo. She very decorously suggested that sitting outside may not be completely healthy.
There is something about cities—the humm of so many lives intertwined and lived out on the streets, the noise, the bustle, even the grime—that I love. There is something that just feels so unabashedly human about it all to me. Whether it’s Manhattan or Mumbai, there is something familiar about all cities, that distilled human commonality that shines through. It was hard to feel that in Singapore—its veneer was a little too tough, its hyper-courtesy a little too rehearsed. Riding the MRT back to the airport, I wanted to press the silent students and businessmen for answers. But, of course, I didn’t. I smiled politely and put in my earbuds.