Rediscovering the beauty of flying: Back from Singapore

I wake up wishing for a teleport to take me home. I’m sick of Singaporean airconditioning on the inside and heat and humidity outside. I’m tired of being constantly on the move and staying up so late. I miss my dog. And I want to be able to eat again without the solids constantly liquefying.

Yes I’m nervous about the flight, but it’s not nagging me to the core life before. But I would rather not spend eight hours locked in an aluminium can.

I just want to go home right now and be home right away.

But I can’t and we’ve got a whole day to kill before we board that flight.

Alex and I go down to inspect the Duxton’s swimming pool. It looks very nice, but it’s way too cold. Our pool at home will be warmer. These Singaporean swimming pools are disappointingly cool.

Breakfast turns into brunch is lunch.

Stopping by a streetside vendor to buy an ice cream sandwich, we walk down historic Kreta Ayer and Neil Roads to reach the Maxwell Food Centre. While B queues up for the popular and popularised Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall I quickly grab a couple of thick coconut filled apom baliks from the Pan Cake stall. I would have to be in throes of a stomach removal not to eat them.

But I can’t finish my Hokkien noodles from the Marina South stall, despite them being some of my favourites. And the Tian Tian chicken rice isn’t, in all honesty, as good as B cooks at home.

We walk back into Chinatown, along the thronging hordes of tourists browsing stalls selling red and gold Chinese New Year decorations and snacks along with their usual paraphernalia.

This is all getting too much for Alex and I. We retreat to the MRT and catch a ride to Bencoolen where I hope the visit the National Gallery of Singapore. Art is great when you are tired.

Except I’m wrong and this is the stop for the Singapore Art Museum, currently closed. And my guts are about to explode. It’s fortunate that I keep tissues in my pocket because there is no paper in the cubicles (you grab a strip before you enter).

You really wanted to know that, right?

Okay, let’s try the Suntec City shopping mall where there is another branch of the Brickworks Lego chain along with other shops and airconditioning.

Along the way we pass historic Chjimes and the famous Raffles Hotel, currently under renovation. The area holds memories for B and I. We stayed at what was previously the Allson Hotel down the road back in 2005, back when her brother had a reception at the Carlton. There was a 24 hour food court nearby and on our late night arrival after landing, also on QF5, if I recall correctly, we ate mee siam and radish cake in the wee hours of the night. It’s gone now.

We pop into the Raffles Mall opposite the hotel for another bathroom stop and for some airconditioning before continuing on to Suntec, passing the World War II memorial.

Again we don’t find any Lego to buy, well, that we are willing to buy. We sit down in another food court and buy yet more food that none of us completely finishes, except for mango and milk ice. We’ve all lost our appetites. How can this happen in Singapore? Normally our enemy is overeating.

Was it Tasmania a week before? Has fresh food spoiled us? It wouldn’t be a bad thing.

On the way back to the hotel we stop at Chinatown MRT which is absolutely crowded. It turns out there is a Chinese New Year performance on a stage setup on the closed Eu Tong Sen road. It’s a while before we can cross to our hotel.

It’s early, but we decide to head to the airport. Right below the hotel is Outram Park MRT station on a direct (as they get) line to Changi, with the usual change at Tanah Merah. Then the Skytrain to Terminal 1.

By the time we’ve removed a change of clothes from our luggage our flight check in has moved from the early check in lounge to the main check in area. There is no queue and our bags are soon on the way, as are we through initial security and immigration.

Airside is decked out in Chinese Year of the Dog decorations. Alex runs over to the Social Tree to play a game, remembering it from the last visit, but the screens are blank and not functioning. B asks about the giant slide, but that is in Terminal 3.

Wandering around, Alex spots a toy shop selling Lego (though nothing interesting), but more importantly we find a Bengawan Solo, where I can buy slices of kuih lapis spekkoek.

Our flight is not until 11.40 pm, almost three hours away. Changi is supposed to have lots to do, but to be honest we’d rather relax. At the end of a long hot day it’s really nice to be able to relax in a lounge, to take a shower and have a snack. I’d love a bed too.

Fortunately I’m able to use my Qantas Club membership for the three of us to gain access the Qantas Business Lounge. No bed, but it does have the rest. The food looks nice, Moroccan beef stew, rice, spiced cauliflower and pasta, a variety of salads, carrot soup and a number of desserts including creme brulee and kaya lamingtons. It’s such a pity I have no appetite, restricting myself to fresh fruit and drinks.

The shower is nice, though a little weak. Warm relief from the ever present airconditioning. No appetite and feeling the cold. I must be sick.

One thing the lounge lacks is entertainment. There’s free wifi and one television screen, but their magazine section is woeful with only the execrable Daily Telegraph, fashion, golfing and property magazines. It’s not a problem for me, but B and Alex are a little bored trying to share one iPad between the two of them.

As we head out to our gate a young staff member at the lounge offers chocolate biscuits from a basket. It’s a nice touch.

Security checks are done at the gate in Changi and we join the long queue to enter the gate lounge. At the X-ray we are forced to throw out a bottle of rojak sauce we had forgotten to stow in our checked in luggage. Oh well, it was for mother-in-law anyway.

On the other side of the glass is our ride home, a Qantas Airbus A330-200 (VH-EBP), same type that brought us here in the first place. I have mixed feelings about this aircraft. On one hand it is elegant to look at. I always used to admire the A332 in the Qantas magazine, the winglets against the fuselage, the modern lines compared to the classic aircraft of that era. But times have moved on since then.

For a while the A330 was ubiquitous and it felt like we rarely caught anything else, especially when it flew with Jetstar. The Boeing 787s that have replaced their A330s are more modern and I’ve usually had smoother flying experiences on them. Contrast that with the A330 where I’ve more than a few times felt “the hand of God” give us a good shaking. Prior to this trip I had two rough experiences of Qantas A330s flying between Sydney and Melbourne. So I really wasn’t looking forward to the flights on this trip, especially when I had already had so many turbulent experiences between Australia and South East Asia around the same period of the year.

The flight across to Singapore wasn’t awfully bumpy. The storms above Singapore have cleared for the night and I can see the Moon in the sky. I have a bit more confidence tonight. What concerns me is the ever present storms over Indonesia, the low pressure system over the Western Australian coast and the colliding monsoon and cold fronts over the north, especially after our somewhat rough flight back from Launceston was between “two bad weather systems”.

There’s nothing I can do about it. I want to go home.

We take advantage of the “families of young children” announcement to board the aircraft early. Once inside the door we split up. With a 2-4-2 seating configuration it is impossible for the three of us to sit together by the window and when I originally booked there weren’t even two seats by the window except at the very rear. Qantas blocks out forward economy seats for pre-selection by low status flyers until check in. I checked in online as early as possible and scored a window seat for myself in row 27 on the left just forward of the wing and a window and aisle seat in row 33 for the other two on the right, as they are unaffected by the bumps. The flight is pretty packed, understandable for the end of the Australian school summer holidays.

It’s pleasing to see that this aircraft is in full international configuration with the seatback screens instead of the previous flight’s iPads. The movie library is larger, but sadly there is no more music to my taste. I add some relaxation music to my playlist and switch my screen to map mode. The screen’s touch responsiveness and accuracy is poor, especially compared to the Jetstar 787s, and it takes me a while to figure out the right touch technique to make it work.

A young Singaporean lady sits down next to me and starts her beauty routine, then takes out an eyemask. Good, she won’t complain when I leave the window shade open.

The captain apologises for the delay as we wait for some very late passengers. The crew are already starting to search for their bags to unload.

He says nothing about a smooth flight. I’m a little worried again.

Finally the missing passengers arrive and we can depart. We leave the gate and the crew does the safety demonstration. I’m so sleepy that I can only half open my eyes to watch.

The so-called long taxi is pretty short, but that’s the nature of Singapore. Then we align with the runway and up we go.

The ascent is smooth, with just a single bump which I take to be the cloud layer. I can see moonlight reflecting off the cloud. I’m glad for the light.

The lights are dimmed, but not extinguished, and the cabin crew come through with a welcome drink of Bickford’s cordial. Lemon-lime I think. A bit later they serve a choice between a chicken and tomato calzone or potato curry wrap, both boxed. They both sound delicious, but I really have no appetite. Not even for the Weiss bar ice cream served later. The cabin is now completely darkened.

We hit a rougher patch of high cloud near the Banta Belitung Islands, though the seatbelt lights are kept off. What I find interesting is that the external landing lights (or wing lights?), very bright, were switched on, something I was told by a Qantas check captain wasn’t done in flight (though I have seen otherwise). To warn other aircraft of our presence or to observe any ice build up on the wings? I’m not certain.

There are more bumps as we cross Java and we twist and turn to avoid storm clouds. I can see the lightning flashing yellow now and then. But it’s really not too bad.

Eventually it calms down again and I doze a while, maybe half an hour, the relaxing music helping me sleep. I wake and the Moon has set, the stars visible as brilliant pinpoints of light. I see the streak of a meteor burning up in the atmosphere, but the sky is fairly quiet tonight.

I decide to distract myself with a movie. There’s a pretty good series of choices, many of them older movies that I’ve enjoyed on flights over the past couple of decades. After being forced into so many Lego shops I chose the Ninjago movie.

I can’t focus. I’m still too skittish to focus on the screen rather than the window. Maybe something I’ve seen before and can happily listen to? Can’t decide. I go back to the window.

As we approach the Western Australian coast on a track further south than that initially indicated on the flight map we encounter more high cloud and more bumps. In the distance to the far north I can see a very large cloud mass flashing away with yellow lightning. I wonder if it’s the centre of a proto-cyclone, though it turns out that none developed.

I drift off for another short while. When I wake the air is smooth. I look down and we are gliding above clouds. There is a line of light through the sky. Dawn is coming!

The sky outside gradually transforms as we race towards the day. Blues to pinks, golds and burning orange and back to blue again. All while we fly smoothly through the morning air. I am transfixed by the view. Below us as the cloud thins, the rills of the red desert dunes, the cracks in the Earth of dry rivers, the pale white salt lakes. Suddenly it comes back to me. This is why I love flying.

After so many hours of stressing it’s a revelation. The world is a beautiful place once more.

And I am the only one looking at it. Every other window shade is closed. I know I’m being a little selfish, despite blocking the window with my body. But how can this sight go unseen? The world is too wonderful not to appreciate it.

Eventually, as the full day arrives, the German accented flight attendant (despite others walking past many times) requests me to lower the shade halfway, which I do. Apparently Alex and B were asked to lower their shade completely much earlier in the flight. I’m glad I was not. I cannot fly without knowing what is outside, my only vestige of control.

I actually find it easier to sleep in the mornings with the light on my eyes, find myself having microsleeps. All our body clocks need to be reset, especially as I have to work tomorrow.

In this mood I cannot listen to relaxation music any longer. I disconnect my noise cancelling headphones from the aircraft and switch to a random music playlist on my mobile.

Looking at the flight map I wonder if any of the large rock masses I can see out of my window is Uluru. I think not. Further along in South Australia I spot Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest salt lake and its lowest point. Then we cross the bottom of Lake Froome, another expanse of white salt. Here white is crystal salt, not the crystallised water that is snow and ice.

More ephemeral lakes surround Australia’s longest river system, the Murray-Darling. The Darling flows from Queensland, meeting the Murray River, the border between Victoria and New South Wales.

The lights are on now in the cabin and we are served breakfast. The choice is a mushroom omeltte with bacon, tomato, sausage and potato. Once, I would have gone for the hot option despite the presence of mushrooms (fungus which I would have picked out). These days I prefer the alternative, the seasonal fruit platter. It is exactly what I feel like eating. Fresh fruit. That and a cup of orange juice.

We are getting closer now to Sydney and the clock is ticking down to the half hour flight time that will signify our descent. After a period of clear sky clouds are appearing below us. I recall almost exactly two years ago today when, on a similar flight back from Singapore with Scoot, we suddenly hit turbulence about now, and then had a descent through clouds into Sydney. It actually wasn’t so bad and that memory fills me with confidence now.

There’s no front this time to bump us around, but as we approach Sydney there is an ominous increase in cumulus congestus, fluffy cumulus clouds starting to tower, perhaps on their way to becoming storms, with updrafts inside.

We fly around them, but a few bumps are starting. I’m starting to feel a little apprehensive.

The captain requests the crew prepare the cabin for landing. It looks like we are going for an approach from the south, which studying the direction of the cloud expanse I am happy about.

Then the captain announces “All passengers and cabin crew please return to your seats and put your seatbelts on.”

Is this just the standard landing request or is he worried? It’s not followed up by a “The captain has switched on the seatbelt light in preparation for landing.”

That makes me concerned. We are getting lower and lower now. I can see us coming close to a big cloud. It’s white. We are inside and there is pressure from below. Updraft, updraft, now the downdraft, the bit I hate. Again.

Now we are through. Okay survived it.

Out over the coast, the Royal National Park. No clouds here!

Turning back in towards Kurnell and the airport. Thin grey cloud. Through, no worries.

On final descent past the old oil refinery and the wetlands. Across the bay. Down, down, down. Landed! Reverse thrust. Slowing. Now the taxi past the other aircraft.

A long taxi. The news is bad. Our late arrival means there are no gates for us. It’s off past the freight terminal to Bay 1, a bus gate.

I’ve never done an international bus gate in Sydney, but I’m no fan of bussing to the terminal.

It’s off down the stairs and into the waiting bus, where B and Alex rejoin me. We’ve been warned not to use portable electronic devices on the tarmac, but like another passenger I snap a shot from within the bus.

Our ride across the tarmac is forced to pause as a huge Asiana A380 is towed back from its gate ready for its flight back to Incheon, South Korea. It’s size is astounding up this close. We flew their Boeing 772 on the same route back in 2004.

Once inside we are forced to use the human immigration desk as Alex is under ten. Which is okay because there is barely a queue and the officer is cheerful. Our luggage is out quickly and we join the declaration queue, which also travels quickly. Obviously the middle of the day is a good time.

The friendly customs and quarantine officer asks us to show us the foods we have declared and spots an issue with the bags of Chinese bak kut teh and soup herbs. They contain dried jujuba dates with the seeds still inside. Grabbing a cutter he slices open a bag and removes a date to confirm his suspicions and demonstrates the problem. But rather than making us toss everything he slices open each offending back and together we remove the dates (which can be purchased seedless in Sydney) and are allowed to proceed with the rest of the herb contents.

This was the second time we’ve had such a good experience with customs. Contrary to how they are portrayed in Border Security if you are open and honest they can be really helpful. It also helps if there isn’t a huge queue behind you.

Now all that is left is to catch the train and bus home and get some sleep.

I have mixed feelings about this trip, had them even when we booked it. In many ways I wanted to do it just to get rid of the last remaining need to visit to Malaysia for anything other than on our terms. Whilst enjoying local cuisine is a good activity to do in another country, it is not a sufficient reason to visit it, and as we discovered, even the enjoyment of that pleasure can be a fickle thing.

My highlight was, without a doubt, the train ride from Butterworth to Singapore. That felt worthwhile. To eat a meal from a grimy roadside food stall. That was fun. Endless shopping centres and late, late nights. No, I’m mostly tired of that.

The flights were, on the whole, pretty good, though I’m yet to start enjoying long flights again. Qantas were great. The little things, like snacks throughout the flight, fresh fruit and water, pillows and blankets, a range of entertainment (though better music, please!) made it that much more pleasant. AirAsia was fine, though less refined.

What I really gained from these flights and those to Hobart before them was part of the process for dealing with turbulence anxiety: the ability to test predictions and address beliefs. As we flew I analysed the experience and compared it with my beliefs and the statements made to me during the flight anxiety course.

  • Do pilots try to avoid turbulent clouds and storms? Yes.
  • Is a cloudy sky always rough? No.
  • Is the Airbus A330 aircraft bad in turbulence? Not necessarily.
  • Is there always a big down after a long up? No.
  • Can high cloud not associated with storms be bumpy? Yes.
  • Will a flight to Asia in January be too rough? Not necessarily.
  • Am I destined to always feel terrible before a flight? NO!
Not all answers are definitive, and that’s okay. At least they give a glimmer of hope with which to face the certainty of doubt. Just because I had a bad experience once doesn’t make it certain, or even likely, that it will be repeated. 
So I finish the first holidays of the year with the chance to look forward to more across the rest of it. May the skies be smooth for all.
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