by Gabriela Aleman
Let me break some news to you: leaving a foreign country you’ve only spent three months living in is a thousand times harder than leaving home. You know, for the most part, you’ll always go back home, wherever it may be. But leaving a foreign country, in my case Sri Lanka, and knowing there’s a possibility I might never go back? It’s heart wrenching. What about all the people I met? What about the orphans and when they grow up? It really hits you, the impermanence of life, and knowing that some people and places are only supposed to affect you for a certain portion of your life and that’s all. I left Sri Lanka with a heavy heart, but also one filled with immense gratitude for the work I did, the people that impacted me, and the beautiful places I was so lucky to visit. It could not have been a better way to start off my year.
I also left with a bit of curiosity and anxiety. Why? Well, because contrary to plan, I did not fly from Sri Lanka to Indonesia. Instead, I flew to Singapore! Yay for spontaneous gap year changes of plans! What’s a gap year without a bit of messiness though, right? To work with the organization I’m still planning to partner with in Indonesia, I need a “Social Visa,” which will allow me to stay in Indonesia for five months, as I’ve planned. This specific visa is one that needs to be applied for before entering Indonesia. In my foolishness, I thought I’d be able to apply for it in Sri Lanka, but when I went to do so, I was denied by the Indonesian embassy there because I was not a Sri Lankan citizen or resident.
It’s safe to say I panicked a bit. But after talks with embassies and researching and bouncing ideas off of my gap year coordinator, the decision was made: I’d be going to Singapore.
Thanks to my awesome sister, I was connected with some of her fabulous friends there and was able to avoid paying for a hotel and other living expenses (Note: Having international couches to crash on is the BEST. THING. EVER.). Singapore, as it turned out, is probably the most efficient society in the world. The small city/country is so organized and clean that I was able to navigate my way around, no problem. I was slightly nervous going into the Indonesian embassy there, scared that I’d be turned down for some reason. Amazingly, I had nothing to worry about—I was in and out of the embassy in 20 minutes with the confirmation that I could pick up my visa in two days, no questions asked. With that out of the way, I had four days to explore Singapore.
Using the ever so efficient MRT train (a.k.a. a neater, more organized version of the NYC subway system), I was able to explore areas like the hustling and bustling Chinatown; the shopping center-heavy Orchard street, decked out with impressive Christmas lights; the ever crowded Little India and adjacent Arab street, home to some of Singapore’s rare graffiti (although you can’t really call it graffiti since it needed to be approved before being painted); and my favorite, the Botanic Gardens, where I spent a wonderfully peaceful afternoon strolling, reading, and generally sweating from the intense heat.
But here’s the thing. While Singapore impressed me with its efficiency and cleanliness, I have to say that it taught me some things I DON’T like about society. I’m grateful I was able to explore it, and I can attest that the food there is FANTASTIC, but still, it lacked a certain charm for me. That may be due to the fact that I was incomprehensibly overwhelmed to be back in such an organized “first world” society. I was back to paying $10 for a meal, which made me think how I could eat three meals a day plus stay in an accommodation for that same price in Sri Lanka.On the MRT train, everyone’s features had that fluorescent glow produced by the proximity of their phone to their faces. No one stopped for anything; there was always constant movement, constant rushing. It was a harsh reality compared to the easy and slow paced lifestyle of Sri Lanka.
And dare I say it? People actually followed the rules there– and it was boring. No more swerving cars, no more jaywalking, no more bargaining for food or items, no more free tuk-tuk rides because someone was feeling generous, no more loud competitions between monasteries or mosques to have their prayers heard across the neighborhoods.
This realization struck me because a mere three months ago, before Sri Lanka, I was living and thriving in just such a fast paced society. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t exactly condemn this lifestyle–I grew up in it– but living in Sri Lanka made me more aware of what is necessary in life and what isn’t. I’m starting to place importance on different things whereas before I was tied up with the material. A clichéd insight, I know, but everyone should experience this realization at some point, right?
Overall, I’m incredibly grateful that everything ran so smoothly in Singapore and that I was able to explore another part of the world. It also gave me the chance to meet up with a past volunteer I met in Sri Lanka as well as meet new people with whom I had an absolute blast. A tip for travelers though: get all your visa stuff done BEFORE leaving your country; this trip definitely helped me learned that lesson.