When borders around the world slam shut, where do travel lovers escape to?
I have always felt it is enticingly possible to play traveller within the tiny 725 sq km confines of Singapore, with its enclaves of young global souls, heartland gardens and the Singapore River like a portal to the past.
Then I have my newest favourite, Jewel Changi Airport, which connects the world and Singapore powerfully.
Before and during Dorscon Orange, I have been stepping into this light-filled pleasure dome, a hyper-real destination in itself. Magically, in Jewel, I travel without leaving the country.
Jewel is also a portrait of an insidious disease stopping a country in its tracks. Airports are always alive with people going everywhere – but I glimpsed Changi Airport in a sadder light last Wednesday.
The Skytrain skimming past the HSBC Rain Vortex was vacant, like the empty “ghost” planes that were still flying all over the world before airlines slashed capacity.
Though there was still a (spaced-out) line at Shake Shack, a couple of toddlers were running and laughing without a care, and the vertical gardens were perfect, there was a desolation here I had never experienced before.
Sitting at a restaurant beneath the glass canopy, I read the title of a Harvard Business Review story and was hooked: “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.”
Grief expert David Kessler articulated the wordless emotions now engulfing so many people as the coronavirus spreads with no end yet in sight: “The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection.
“This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air,” he said in the interview.
Later, I caught the last triumphant Light And Sound show at the Rain Vortex before Changi Airport canned it indefinitely the next day. How poignant that this is happening days before Jewel marks its first anniversary on April 17.
Though I mourn, I know this cannot be the end of the story for the country or its wanderers. While waiting for the coronavirus cloud to clear, there are places to discover within our gorgeous shores.
I’d never quite entertained the idea of domestic tourism in a land as minuscule as Singapore, but the idea of exploring the country is in the news.
For my recent story on staycations, Ms Margaret Heng, executive director of the Singapore Hotel Association, pointed out: “Singapore has earned global recognition for being a world-class destination. It makes sense for Singaporeans to love our local hospitality experiences too.”
After writing about luxuriating in green city resorts, picnicking at Fort Canning Hill and urban exploring, I wanted to book a “staycay” too.
When I think about it, I have been a domestic traveller without realising it.
Once, I edited a special edition on Secret Journeys In Singapore for the paper. Then, and now, my colleagues and I delighted in enclaves where young global souls found affordable spaces for their new indie lifestyle shops, amid old-time purveyors of provisions and tyres in places such as Havelock Road and Jalan Besar.
Someone tried circumnavigating Singapore on foot and by public transport.
Others revelled in a hillside garden in Chinatown, a bus ride through Yio Chu Kang and the improbable sand pyramids in Tampines – journeys that could define the country as pleasurably as Gardens by the Bay or a flight out of Changi Airport to exotic lands.
During Chinese New Year, I revisited Jalan Besar. An old shiprepair workshop, still moodily romantic, now housed the hip Twenty Twenty pop-up arts destination.
Last month, a friend and I traversed the Alexander Park Connector, clocking 9,000 steps.
This month, for a story on churches in a time of coronavirus, I visited a small church in Geylang and passed masked Buddhist chanters in a temple. For lunch, I enjoyed vegetarian nasi padang for the first time, capped by coffee at the oasis Jing Si Books and Cafe.
Once again, I was intrigued by Geylang, where houses of worship meet brothels, a place both sacred and profane.
Other journeys in Singapore are more spontaneous and that is also the essence of travel. Recently, while driving over Benjamin Sheares Bridge, fireworks lit up the waterfront. Many times, driving home over the bridge, I had marvelled: “How beautiful Singapore is.”
Yes, I think longingly about the trips I cannot take. I am also immensely thankful for all my journeys. I find myself flipping through a mental album of last year’s sojourns, which now seem aeons ago.
Last September, abaya-clad, I stood at the verge of a canyon in Saudi Arabia, which was opening its borders to international tourism for the first time.
Exploring China with my videographer colleague on a high-speed train, we could never have imagined that Wuhan, much like the giga-cities we encountered, would be the epicentre of a pandemic that has ended life and travel as we know it.
With seven journeys shoehorned into six months – very unusual – I was also in dreamy Georgia and Armenia, less-seen Suan Phueng district near Bangkok, over-the-top Dubai, the timeless Loire Valley in France and Seattle, where Singapore Airlines had launched a new flight just last September.
It is all far away and long ago.
But, this is not a time for travel. I was moved by a viral Facebook post by a healthcare worker who said: “We stay here for you. Please stay home for us.”
I know the world will feel even more extraordinary when it’s the season to fly again and live normally. For now, I will explore Singapore in the spirit of travel, watchfully.