I have 24 hours in Singapore and know very little about the city. But it is hot, and because I am on vacation, after all, it makes sense to look for the beach. I know Singapore has a beach. Take the subway to Harbourfront Station, a Singaporean stranger directs me in British English. I nod and bow, like an idiot.
At the harbor, the boats look new and cheap. To my left, there’s a perpendicular promenade, an artificial land-bridge I can walk on and that will take me to the other side, to the island of Sentosa. There I will find Sentosa Beach. There is a train called the Sentosa Express that goes to the beach, but now, seeing this promenade, I decide to walk. The promenade has moving walkways, too. Why would anyone take the Sentosa Express, I wonder, why even have the Sentosa Express, when walking has been made so easy? At the end of the final walkway, I pay the one Singapore dollar entrance fee and ask the ticket taker where the beach is. She motions behind her, handing me a map of the northern half of the island. There’s no beach on this map.
I walk on, checking the GPS on my smart phone that begins leading me down private driveways and golf course paths, asking directions, checking the GPS again, checking the ticket taker’s beachless tourist map again, asking directions again, retracing my steps, and asking directions again, and again. I emerge from my confusion in the worst place in Singapore: Universal Studios Singapore. Frantically, I scour the scene for signs for the beach. Tourists everywhere. Tourists like me, but at the same time, tourists not like me – tourists not going to the beach. “Tourist trap,” I think, understanding the phrase in a whole new way. Tourists on lines for $20 crab burgers and $30 gadgets, useless but never before seen gadgets. Tourist families trapped whose kids all want everything and whose parents all want to please their kids. I ask strangers for directions to the beach, but no one knows. I ask a guard who just says I have to go back. Helplessly, I buy a $20 crab burger. Later – three rides later – I’m about to buy a $30 hat, with some witty English on it, when I suddenly remember why I’m here, who I am, who I must become. I find a station for the Sentosa Express monorail and ask how to get to the beach.
“Monorail,” she says.
“And by walking?” I say.
She studies me for a moment and then motions towards a narrow staircase. At the bottom of the staircase, I ask a guard. He motions east.
“Take a left at the Chili’s,” he adds.
Once past the Chili’s, I begin on a path that my GPS doesn’t recognize. I follow my instincts, walking through driveways, through hotel parking lots, stepping stones through gardens and signs that say: “We are beautifying this area for a better experience.” I follow an opening in the forest, follow voices, follow smoke, and finally, I reach the last station on the Sentosa Express, where tourists stand confused, analyzing their beachless maps and looking for restrooms. There are only restaurants and fences here, still no beach. I keep walking, past everyone, down a dirt path emptier than the restaurants behind me. A sign says, “More FUN this way,” and I sure as hell hope so. A promising sign that says, “Welcome to Palawa Beach,” proves to be misleading. It’s an empty children’s amusement park. Childless inflatable slides and moonwalks grumble hungrily.
Finally, I see sand. Channeling Columbus – yes, as the heroic character he was portrayed to me as in my adulterated, American youth. And in the end, the beach is actually very beautiful, like a postcard: white sand and bright blue water. Girls playing volleyball like human mermaids at the end of a fairy tale, past the happy ending and into the even happier epilogue. I walk across a footbridge to some rocks, hide my wallet and phone under my shirt on the rocks, and float on my back, thinking of the tension between the worst place in Singapore and Singapore at its finest, and this tension as a microcosm of life, or at least, a kind of fable. I get out, walk over to the Mexican-themed beach bar, and order a $12 Mojito, because what the hell. Coronas are 9$ here, anyway. But mostly, because what the hell. The expensive, unhealthy drink comes in a small glass, a smallness I should have seen coming, but I as look out over the burnt red shoulders of the fat western couples flanking me, along the beach, with the sun melting my face, hanging low over the row of ugly steamships and tankers that are so bulky and motionless, that, if I were hallucinating, I might mistake for islands, or even Indonesia itself, I feel happy. I’ve done it. Past all the bull crap, the plastic artificiality, past the worst place in Singapore and all the bait on hooks they throw at you, over and over again, day in and day out, trip after trip, trap after trap after... I had made it here.