My wife, daughter and I arrive in Singapore after midnight. Heat hits us as we walk out of the airport. We wait on a sidewalk and in a short time are met by a car and driver. We ride into the city in the dark.
Before the sun rises, I go out to look for a convenience store. There is no litter on the streets, not even a cigarette butt. There are, however, blossoms that have fallen from plumeria trees.
I find a Circle K and grab a couple of beers. When the clerk sees what I’m doing, he gets excited. He jumps from behind the counter and runs to me. He takes the bottles from my hands and puts them back in their case. I start to protest, but we don’t understand each other; all I can sense is his apoplexy.
In the morning, the sky is covered with an orange cloud, through which the sun’s white disk can be seen. Later, we learn that the cloud is smoke. Fires have been set in Indonesia to clear the land of rainforest.
The smoke has cleared by the time we start on a hike in a large park. The problem is, we don’t know how far we’ll need to walk before we find wild monkeys.
On the path, we meet a man coming from the opposite direction. “Sometimes you see them swinging through the trees,” he says. “Other times, you don’t see them at all. But if you do see them, don’t feed them.
“The best thing,” he continues, “is that at the end of the trail you’ll find … fresh, cold water.”
After walking a couple of miles, we spot many long-tailed macaques. They are in the trees and on the ground, and they are small—the size of an American beagle.
Nevertheless, the monkeys frighten my wife and daughter. I hear (human) screams and see all of them (humans and lesser primates) running along the path. Luckily (for the humans), the monkeys give up the chase.
I walk to a monkey and take its picture. It doesn’t care. I have no food. All I have is a small camera. The monkey doesn’t find the device appetizing.
A friend invites us to dinner. I’ve never met him, but he and I attended the same college—that is enough for friendship in Singapore.
He asks what kind of food we’d like, and we say local food. He suggests a restaurant called Kopitiam, which sounds foreign and hard to find, but when I look it up I see it is in our hotel.
Kopitiam means coffee shop, but the restaurant turns out not to be a coffee shop. It is fully decked out.
Our friend’s wife joins us and asks why I’m in the Land of the Lion.
“I’m part of a festival,” I say.
“I haven’t heard of it,” she says.
“It’s in the newspaper,” her husband says.
“I didn’t see it.”
“I was invited,” I say.
At the end of dinner, we go to the buffet area. Our host’s wife points to a large bowl of a soft, green food and says, “It’s a local dessert. You should try it.”
I spoon some of the mush into a bowl.
“You’re very brave,” she says.
I taste the dessert. It’s a little like cooked turnip, with a dash of olive and a large helping of tar. “I don’t know about this,” I say.
I suspect I’ve just alienated our hosts, who must be thinking, “Tourist!” or worse, “Wetback!” or at least “Wet behind the ears!”
“Oh,” they say, “you have to grow up with it. Then you’ll like it.”
The next day, I go to our hotel lobby to meet my “guide.” Her name is Liyana, but that doesn’t help me. There are several young women who could be called Liyana.
As it turns out, the Liyana I’m looking for is wearing a hijab, which must be uncomfortable in this heat, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
“Thanks for meeting me,” I say, “but I don’t need a guide.”
“I’ll show you the way,” she says.
She leads me along a wide street, past three towers that have a ship balanced on them. “The ship is a bar,” she explains. “It’s very popular with tourists.”
The street we are on is interrupted by another wide street. We cross and come to an intersection of several streets. We stay on course and find our street on the other side of the plaza.
Liyana leaves me at the entrance to the Old Parliament Building. The main room has bleacher seats—left from the British colonial era. At one end is a large screen with a map of Singapore and the words “Island of Dreams.”
My wife and daughter find the event without a guide. An old friend of mine also comes to listen to the discussion. I have a lot to say about my topic: writing from experience. I make stories out of things that have happened.
Afterward, all of us—my family and my old friend—go out for a meal.
“Let’s go to a local place,” I say.
“How about Kopitiam?” my old friend says.
In the evening, my wife, daughter and I decide to take a trip by bus from the hotel. We get to the lobby early and stand there for a long while, listening to ambient techno music.
The bus is late, and when I ask about it, I’m told we can take the next bus. “You can wait outside,” a staffer tells me.
The heat outside fuels my impatience.
The next bus doesn’t come, and I say to the staffer, “You aren’t in touch with the drivers, are you?”
“It’s a separate company.”
We end up taking a taxi, and the fare annoys me further.
My family and I go to dinner with other festival attendees. One of them tells me his name is Bok. “It used to be Book,” he says, “but my first name is Christian. What does Christian Book mean to you? What were my parents thinking when they gave me that name? I changed Book to Bok as soon as I could.”
After dinner, some people want to prolong the party. “I know where there’s a bar,” one of them says.
“I didn’t think you could buy alcohol at night,” I say.
“That’s true,” one of them says. “There was a riot a while back. Some guys got drunk and overturned some cars. Since then, you can’t buy beer in stores at night. But you can go to a bar.”
I turn down the invitation. We’ve spent the past few nights as if they were days and the past few days as if they were nights. The days and nights have been of equal length, which has made them harder to distinguish.
Before we leave the country, we’re told that the drive the airport is pretty. The roads are lined with flowering trees and plants. But we have to go to the airport at a time when it is still night.
At least, we find our ride. The event organizers are upset that some participants left for the airport on their own, without telling anyone.
We don’t see any of our surroundings during the drive. We are heading toward the border of Malaysia. Our driver tells us that everything is cheaper there—gas, groceries, clothing. It’s a complacent place, easygoing, not fierce like Singapore.
I want to see Malaysia, but we don’t cross over.
We have come and gone from the Land of the Lion in the dark.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award from the Asian American Writers Workshop, and his book Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. He has also received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.