Virtual Vacation: A Day In Limbo at the Queen of Airports

After an all night flight, I stumbled out of the cramped coach compartment at 11 AM local time into the shiny megacity that is Singapore’s Changi Airport. The size and scale of the place is staggering. Think of the biggest mall you’ve ever been in and inflate it ten times in size.

This sprawling shopping paradise sports indoor billboards, multi-levels, hundreds of restaurants and shops, and a train that takes you from one end to the other. Everything is clean, well-lit, and well-marked—all in English.

Chagi Airport, Shanghai - skyline bilboard

The first thing I did was duck into a bathroom to change out of my long pants, tank top and sweatshirt into a sundress I’d stashed in my carry-on baggage. Then I found the booth to sign up for a free tour of Singapore and I got on the list for the 2 PM tour.

Finally, I inquired at one of the many information booths about where I could leave my backpack, computer, sweatshirt and c-pap machine and was pointed in the direction of “Left Luggage,” where for $7.50 in Singaporean Dollars (about six bucks US), an attendant took my belongings, leaving me only a small purse and my small but heavy-duty, wired no-theft fanny pack that holds my passport and my cash, in three different currencies. I felt (relatively) unencumbered and ready to explore.

Changi is full of Transit Lounges—mini hotels where you can rent a room to sleep (minimum 3 hours), pay for a five hour stint in a very comfortable lounge with food, cushy chairs, nice views, beverages, and other amenities. You can also buy foot reflexology treatments, massage, “nail services,” or take a shower.

The prices for the bodywork—as well as all the goods, services and food throughout the airport are comparable to U.S. prices. I decided to treat myself to a massage later in the day, and as I booked my hour-long massage for 6 PM, The House of the Rising Sun was being broadcast throughout the Transit Lounge.

As I stood waiting my turn, someone came in to send a fax to Sri Lanka and someone else got pages printed off their PC. I guess the massage parlor, elite lounge, and napping compartments doubles as a business center.

Chagi Airport Shanghai - Directions sign

At an information kiosk, I picked up two glossy brochures, a 26-page Airport Guide and a smaller colorful (also glossy) four-fold flyer advertising, “Garden Trail Changi,” promising me a Butterfly Garden, a Cactus Garden, a Bamboo Garden, a Fern Garden, a Sunflower Garden and an Orchid Garden tucked away, somewhere in the glitz and glamour of the airport. It was mall to the tenth power with well-manicured nature preserves thrown in.

I decided to check out the Butterfly Garden while I waited for my free bus tour of the city.

Chagi Airport, Shanghai - Butterfly Garden Sign

I passed through a lime green plastic chain link curtain and through a glass door into an incredible blast of heat. I was in a huge domed habitat full of tropical plants, a fake waterfall and hundreds of butterflies. A circular path and a flight of stairs led through the two-story enclosure. Butterflies were perched on slices of pineapple and in brilliantly colored tropical flowers. The humid sticky heat felt good after the air conditioning, but I was sure glad I’d changed my clothes.

Chagi Airport, Shanghai - Butterfly Garden

Back inside I considered one of the free movies, showing every two hours throughout the day and night: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Step Up Revolution, The Life of Pi, The Words, and Argo, but decided none of them would fit into my schedule. Instead I decided to follow up on the fine print on one of the pages of the Changi Guide—free foot and calf massages. I was directed to a massage machine, which I promptly put my legs in. I sat there for twenty minutes and it felt great after all those hours with my long legs stuck in one position on the airplane.

Chagi Airport, Shanghai - Foot Massage Machine

My legs rejuvenated, it was time for my tour to depart. Twenty of us took the Sky train, way up high about the airport to Terminal 2 and then went through customs to get our to our bus. Before I got my passport stamped (yes, I now have official credit for having visited Singapore), I had to fill out a basic visitor information form: name, passport, country of origin, that sort of thing.

At the bottom in bold red letters were the words:

WARNING

DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS

UNDER SINGAPORE LAW

Good thing I didn’t have any old roaches in my purse. Just a couple of Ativan and some Advil.

Our tour began with a 30-minute drive downtown. The road on either side was full of one plush green park after the other, with quite a few golf courses and waterfront parks thrown in. Singapore is known as the Garden City, and the broad branched huge trees lining the roadside were the most stunning trees I’d ever seen: Acacia, Angsana, Tembusu.

According to our guide, 5.3 million people live in Singapore. Most are immigrants or children of immigrants, and in an attempt to create a cohesive, multiracial society English has been declared the core language. All the signs in the city are in English. English is the language used in the schools. But it was strange for me to have flown to the other side of the world and to see English literally everywhere.

When we reached the city center, Singapore had the most bizarre skyline I’ve seen: a hodgepodge of dramatic soaring buildings that appear to have been thrown together with no coherent pattern or plan. The worlds’ tallest Ferris wheel (now bankrupt, according to our guide) is 165 meters high and remains one of downtown’s most dramatic landmarks.

We were given 20 minutes to stroll around and I found a pathway on the water surrounded by more stunning trees. On the drive back to the airport, a wall of exhaustion hit me and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I checked the World Clock on my phone and saw that it was 1 AM in California. No wonder my eyes were closing.

But I was determined to stay awake until my 9 PM flight—trying to force my body to adjust to the time change. I’d done all the right things—avoided caffeine, gotten out in the sunlight, walked; now it was just a question of sheer will.

When I got back into the airport the assault of all the shops started getting to me.

Chagi Airport, Shanghai - M&M statues

I decided I needed a hit of nature. I pulled out my map and hiked to the Cactus Garden and sat there for spell.

Chagi Airport, Shanghai - Cactus Garden Statue

It was almost five. I couldn’t imagine killing another hour so I went back to the Ambassador Transit Lounge and asked if I could get my massage early. Luckily, they were able to take me right away. An older woman led me back to a massage cubicle and told me to leave my underwear on and lie on my stomach.

The room was freezing and cold air was blowing down on me. As soon as I lay down, I became acutely aware of the music—it was the worst quality Muzak I’d ever heard. It began with an imitation of a Hawaiian love song, then quickly morphed into a truly offensive rendition of Born Free. When my massage therapist came into the room, I asked if she could turn off the fan and turn down the music. She turned off the fan and made the music only a couple of decibels lower. It made no discernable difference.

And then she started massaging me through a towel. I can’t say it was the worst massage I’ve ever had, but it certainly wasn’t skillful, and the strident elevator music began to drive me mad: The Girl from Ipenema, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, Moon River, The Way We Were. All in loud, jarring Muzak.

I thought about bolting from the room, but I kept telling myself that my cramped muscles needed the work before I boarded another plane to Brisbane. So I bore it, but was relieved when the massage was finally over.

My masseuse led me to a shower room—and that’s when the great part of the Ambassador Transit Lounge experience kicked it. It was one of the finest showers I’ve ever had—the showerhead was ten feet up in the air, directly over my head. The water was hot and strong and forceful, and I got the idea immediately that no one in Singapore gives two hoots about water conservation. That shower was like heaven.

Afterwards, I retrieved my belongings and ducked into a bathroom to change my clothes. That’s when I discovered that each of the airport bathrooms features two different kinds of stalls—the kind we’re used to at home and this one:

Chagi Airport, Shanghai - Squatting Toilet

Chagi Airport, Shangai - Squatting Pan Sign

When I exited the bathroom, I looked to my right and saw a sign pointing down a little-used corridor, well out of the bustle of the airport. I followed it to the Prayer Room, which I found in one of the most obscure corners of this airport that never sleeps. Just one man was inside, standing on his prayer rug.

I quietly closed the door and backed out. I was carrying too much stuff—and was way too strung out to pray.

Chagi Airport, Shanghai - Prayer Room Sign

Now at last I’m waiting at my gate waiting for the last leg of this outgoing journey. The next time I write to you, it will be from Australia.

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