Apologies for the silence: February was one of the most manic months I’ve had in ages. Not only am I teaching two classes this semester, but I am also taking two classes, so traveling has become quite the juggling act. Two weeks ago, I did one of my craziest trips ever: flew 24 hours to Singapore, stayed 48 hours, and then flew 24 hours back. Between the jetlag and the uber-futuristic architecture, it felt a bit like time-traveling!
So what inspired this journey? A travel writing conference sponsored by the beautiful people at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. Sixteen scholars and authors from Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, England, and Iowa (!) gathered to discuss the state of travel letters from a variety of lenses and perspectives. Topics included everything from a Bakhtinian reading of nineteenth century women’s writings about Italy to war diaries by Japanese conscripts in the Russo-Japanese War. I gave my first-ever academic paper (well… an essay with a lot of footnotes) called “Wayward Woman: On the Road and on the Page.” In between sessions, we feasted on the single best conference catering I have ever sampled: tiger prawn curry, fish cakes, samosas, fried rice, green papaya salad, drunken noodles, tom yum soup, and pandanberry juice, all liberally spiced with lemongrass, ginger, coconut milk, and chilies. Aye!
I’ve long been curious about Singapore. Back when I was living in Beijing in the late nineties, a friend spent a few months there… and returned with a memorable impression: “It’s like Disney Land, but with the death penalty.” I’ve also always heard that Singapore has the world’s greatest airport. (Indeed, some travelers I know purposefully plot long layovers there. For free or crazy cheap, you can sleep in a real bed, work out at a gym, shower, stroll through a butterfly garden, catch a movie, visit a museum, and buy a lifetime supply of tchotchke.)
Granted, 48 hours doesn’t allow more than a glimpse—especially when you have a conference to tend to—but I found myself rather enchanted with Singapore. Its diversity, for one, is phenomenal. Indians in saris share the street with Malays in hijab and Chinese in Manolo Blahniks. It is far more tropical than I had anticipated and vibrantly green—even in its sleek downtown area. Catwalks and bridges are strung with ivy; potted plants line construction sites. I managed to take two long walks during my stay. First was through a residential neighborhood near my hotel, where I caught morning prayers at a Buddhist temple, gossiped (in my rusty Mandarin) with fruit sellers, and bought treats for my students back home. The second was to Chinatown, where I tossed back a Singapore Sling (a tangy concoction of gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine, and fresh pineapple juice) as I watched a monsoon rainstorm. I also hailed a taxi to the harbor to check out the eye-popping skyline.
I’ve been back in Iowa City for two weeks now, but am still enduring lemongrass withdrawal…. Fortunately, I brought home the perfect souvenirs: Between Stations, a book of travel essays by Singapore writer Kim Cheng Boey (which I found at the coolest bookstore ever: Books Actually, in Tiong Bahru district) and an electric blue robe modeled off the official Singapore Airline uniform. Due to my 12:30 a.m. arrival and 6:30 a.m. departure, I didn’t get to enjoy the famed airport in its full splendor, but next time around, I’ll look like a local. Ting hao le!