Back in the USA, after 20 months of no travel

Yeoh Siew Hoon

It’s been several months since my last postcard, and I thought for this one, I’d deliver it personally. After 20 months of living behind closed borders, I am finally back on the road, and my first flight is on Singapore Airlines’ 18-hour Singapore-to-New York route. You could call it making up for lost flights.

I never thought I’d feel emotional at the sight of satay, but I am told that at 31,000 feet, cabin pressure does something to your senses so you cry more easily over movies (“The Father” is best watched when alone) and, in this case, familiar skewers of chicken coated with spicy peanut sauce.

It is my first flight since March 2020, and the ritual of flying with Singapore Airlines felt oddly surreal yet familiar, almost like a homecoming of sorts.

As with most things, it is the waiting and preparation that’s most fraught with anxiety. Making sure you get all the paperwork in place because everyone has told you how different it all is now.

After that, your unused but highly trained “traveler” muscle kicks in. On check-in, I am asked for my vaccination certificate, attestation form, visa and intended address. Changi Airport is depressingly quiet. At the lounge, which is reassuringly fuller than I expected, it’s all digital now: order food via QR code, no open buffet, as little contact between you and staff as possible. Onboard, too, you get free WiFi for two hours and you can view the in-flight menu, shop and do stuff all online. 

In-flight, however, it felt to me more personal than usual, or maybe that’s just because I’ve been so starved of customer service, especially that of Singapore Airlines. You feel an odd sense of camaraderie with the crew and fellow passengers, possibly because we’ve all gone through the same thing together.

The flight attendant serving the satay wears goggles, mask and gloves, but her eyes are smiling, crinkling at the edges. We have all aged together through this, too, and it’s so reassuring the Singapore Girl is no longer as perfect as she was. I said it must hard to be masked throughout the 18-hour flight, and she said, “Yes, but most important is safety.” In that response, she is still perfect.

The man seated behind me tells me it is also his first flight in 20 months, and he spent most of the flight looking at photos of his grandchildren who live in New York. On disembarkation, he was so impatient to get off he kept tutting, but everyone smiled and made way because we all understood.

At immigration, the officer checked my visa, which is in my old passport, and looked at all the stamps. Then he looked at my new passport (renewed in September) and said, “I hope this fills up, as well.” He doesn’t ask for my vaccination certificate or anything else, just says, “Welcome to New York.”

I don’t know if I am imagining it, but somehow I feel like the U.S. has gotten friendlier to visitors — perhaps it’s because there’s been such a lack of us. 

Everything feels familiar, yet new. In New York, it’s good to see people out and about, some in masks, some without. You see Covid testing booths at strategic locations. A Whole Foods required proof of vaccination to be seated in its cafe, but other, more casual, cafes do not require it.

Restaurants, theaters and bars also require proof of vaccination, and the NYC Covid Safe app, in which I have loaded my photo ID and certificate, works well. You are required to be masked throughout performances in the theater, and it was interesting to hear the ushers call out, during intermission, “Please do not remove your masks or eat and drink.”

I felt like I was back in Singapore, except that back home we have capacity restrictions. Here, restaurants and the performances I went to were packed. The Smith restaurant at Lincoln Center has plexiglass fixtures between tables. Because it was hit so hard at the start, the city is taking a more cautious approach to reopening, I was told by New Yorkers. It’s not a free-for-all, unlike (they whisper in my ear) Miami.

In Miami, it’s life at full throttle. It’s as though that thing never happened. As someone who lives in a country where masks are mandatory indoors and outdoors (except when exercising), Miami takes a bit of getting used to.

But the zest for life is infectious (pardon the pun), and I soon get into the swing of things. After almost two years of being a domestic tourist — and that concept is pretty limited in a place like Singapore — it felt good to be anonymous as a traveler again. I explore the Art Deco Historic District in Miami and am awestruck over bars packed with dancing and singing people, something that’s still not allowed in Singapore.

On an Uber driver’s recommendation, I head off to the Wynwood Art District. The perk of traveling at this time is that places are not as crowded as they usually are, and I was able to enjoy and appreciate the murals at my own pace. One piece catches my eye; it looks familiar. Turns out it’s by the same Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, who’s behind the famous street art pieces of Penang, my hometown in Malaysia.

And that’s the beauty of travel. It took me 20 months to leave home, and when I get to a place on the other side of the world, it connected me to home.
It’s good to come home to travel.

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