(Or How Singapore Changed My Life)
It doesn’t always require one major life-changing event to change a life. Sometimes it takes a series of small mundane realizations for one to wonder about the past, thereby permanently altering one’s future. In my case, there were three realizations. The first one came to me 20 miles above sea level, somewhere between melodrama and sobriety. It was flight PR511, Manila to Singapore.
It was also a flight I almost didn’t take. Just two days before, I did something completely out of character that I began to seriously reassess my personality. Untraditional, settled, and compulsively organized, were just some of the words that best described it. But the days before that flight, the personality I was referring to became strangely unfamiliar. Considering all the confusion and melodrama, all I wanted to do was take refuge in the comfort of my bed. Yet there I was on that flight, asking the flight attendant for a can of ginger ale.
While waiting for my drink, I decided to flip through the plane’s semi-interesting in-flight magazine looking for a good read. The first few pages weren’t promising. My ginger ale came and my hope slowly waned. I flew through pages and walls of text until page 84 gripped me. I was greeted by a photo that made my hands tremble. My chest tightened, my eyes began to well up, and I was flooded with excitement, sadness, envy, and other feelings that seemed to have been plucked at random from an impossibly wide spectrum of human emotions.
Before seeing this photo, I had been intent on living an untraditional life with a partner. I would think of marriage but would be quick to brush it aside. “Who needs marriage?” I would say. All it does is provide you with a piece of paper that’s supposed to protect some rights and some property. That is, if you are even able to get your union recognized in the Philippines. And what if you found out you weren’t compatible? Wouldn’t it be easier to just break up as boyfriends than go through the drama of divorce? Or worse, move heaven and earth to fix things and save the marriage? The list of reasons I didn’t want to get married went on and on until that moment.
The photo that caused the turbulence within me was that of a couple holding hands in mid-air about to “take the plunge” by jumping off a low cliff into the sea right after being pronounced husband and wife. I could hear them say “Who cares if the suit and gown got wet? We will do this and you can’t stop us.” Suddenly, wedding vows made so much sense. Suddenly, taking the plunge with someone I truly love and loves me back had such a strong appeal. And that’s when I realized it.
I want that. I want to be with one man for the rest of my life. I want the world to see how much we love each other. I want to experience how a problem is fixed and how two people realize that no matter how hard life is, and different they may be, they can count on their love and hard work to pull them through. I want that piece of paper. I am traditional after all. Who cares? I will do this and you can’t stop me. I will get married someday. I want all of that.
By touch-down, I had already made a decision that would change my future. I was no longer going to be just in a committed relationship with a partner. I had decided that someday, I would be a married man. As the taxi pulled away from the airport and made its way to my cousin’s house, a very interesting thought crawled into my mind. I wondered how much different the future would be when I flew back.
The second realization came in bits and pieces in between conversations around hugely disjointed topics. This is usually the case when I have conversations with this specific cousin who was to play host for the next four days. Just by the sheer amount of interests, philosophies, and sensibilities we share, we can usually talk endlessly until we find a compelling reason to stop. My four-day vacation was no exception. Every night of my stay, we were up until past midnight discussing every topic in the book.
At one point during these conversations, she was asked this question; “Out of all the places you’ve been to, which one do you consider home?” And her response was very simple; “Wherever I am at the moment.” I didn’t think much of it until the next day. I had always thought that Manila was my home. I have a lot of family and friends there. I work there. I live there. It should not even be up for discussion. Manila is my home. Or is it?
Now that I think about it, Manila doesn’t really feel like home. It’s just a place I stay in. I wasn’t even born there and have not settled in one area longer than a couple of years. If I wanted to, I could actually ask to be transferred to one of our offices outside of Manila. Work and residence do not tie me to that place. As far as family and friends are concerned, I also have family and friends outside of Manila. This goes to show that the presence of family and friends in one place does not qualify it as home. And finally, now that I’ve become open to marriage, a place that wouldn’t recognize my union with another man just lost every chance of being called home.
As we continued with our conversations of places we had been to and people we met along the way, I suddenly felt restless. I was concerned by the thought of having been a nomad for almost three decades. By the end of that day, I had made another decision that would alter my future. No, I have not settled. No, I’m not going to stay in Manila. No, I have not found home. So I decided that I will pour all my energy and resources into finding it. I am now officially, looking for a home.
How do I find it? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll travel the world. How do I know when I’ve found it? Again, I don’t know. Maybe it will just happen. Being me, it would seem natural to put a plan in place. But for some reason, I didn’t have a plan. I just decided I knew what I wanted but didn’t feel the need to map it out. And strangely, it felt good, exciting, and intriguing. This feeling would be reinforced by the third realization that would come to me the next day.
The morning started out the way it did the day before. We talked for hours until we realized we were running out of time and needed to get moving. I locked the door behind me with certainty that my cousin knew which bus to take, how long the trip was, what time the Singapore Zoo closed, and by what time we would be home. If we were lucky, she had an hourly itinerary in her head that she hadn’t shared with us just yet. Of course, that was pushing my luck.
At the bus stop, I asked a question I thought I was going to regret asking; “So, which bus do we take?” She didn’t know. She assumed I looked it up. Nobody knew which bus to take. Nobody knew what time the zoo was going to close. Nobody had an itinerary. Any other day, I would have lost it and started lecturing on how important it was to plan everything in order to make the most out of everyone’s valuable time. Instead, I said “Oh my gosh, I thought YOU looked it up!” and we all started laughing. Each of us then proceeded to find a way to get to the zoo. Maps were unfolded, iPhone consulted, brochures whipped out. It was the goodwill of a stranger that helped us get to a website that had the information we needed. And all this time, no planning at all, I was actually enjoying myself.
This would be a common theme throughout the day. Instead of going straight to the zoo to make the most of the remaining hour and a half, I gave in to the call of my stomach and had pizza. I even blurted out “I’m actually hungry. Let’s eat!” Let the zoo close on us, at least we weren’t hungry. Instead of planning our route according to the map, I just followed the rest of the group. If we didn’t see everything, it was okay, at least I got good photos. Instead of getting disappointed because we weren’t going to make it to the Singapore Flyer, I was actually fine because I knew there would be a next time.
Thinking that it was just one of those carefree days for me, I was pleasantly surprised that the day after was no different. Upon reaching the entrance of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, I immediately consulted the map. But again, instead of picking which places to go to, and in what order, my instinct was to just follow the footpath until we got to the one destination I wanted to see.
The most surprising of all was my decision to go to the airport 5 hours before I needed to check in. I had never been to the Changi Airport except when I arrived 4 days before. Even then, I didn’t have time to look around. I had no idea what to expect and thus, had zero capability of mapping out the 5 hours in order not to waste time. Yet, I decided to go for it. Throwing all cares out the window, we headed for the airport.
It is now 30 minutes before I need to board. In the last 5 hours, all inside this airport, I visited the orchid garden, took photos at the butterfly farm, created art with one of the free woodblock printing booths, played around with a couple of dry seals of Singapore’s symbols, tried Starbucks’ Lemon Hibiscus Shake, had meatless minestrone with a dash of wine, raced with some kid on the walkalator, volunteered to take photos of a family in front of a Lego creation, rode the Skytrain to Terminal 3, rode the Skytrain back to Terminal 2, and did some window shopping in between. No plans, no structure, pure fun.
And as I hear the PA system announce our boarding, I know that people will soon flock to the gate as if it were free seating. In the past, I would have joined them and even beat them to the front with my long strides. But I didn’t feel that urge today. What I felt was a feeling of freedom; freedom, from always worrying about what’s going to happen next. I realized that I have actually become –drum roll– a free spirit. I smile. I stay in my seat and keep typing. “What’s the rush? You know you will get a seat. You know you will get there. Live in the now!” I tell them quietly. And deep inside, I knew I was also saying it to myself.
So here I am, four days and three realizations after; a different man with a different future; a man with very traditional dreams; a man in search of his home; a free spirit enjoying the now. I am somewhere between old and new, 1500 miles from the city I used to call home. It is flight PR504, Singapore to Manila.