And the countdown was on.
There were only four days left in Singapore before we would be departing for Thailand, and everyone was clamoring for more time, frantically trying to arrange last minute places to see. Yet all of this could only be done amidst the flurry of preparations for both our final presentations and papers required for Howie and Trude’s class and the packing that had to be done for our journey to the Southeast Asian mainland.
That, however, didn’t stop many of us from cheering on our adoptive university, NUS, in the dragon boat races that took place that Sunday, which we like to consider a major factor for our decisive victory. Then they met up with more students who had pretended to labor on their presentations back at PGP for an intriguing invite to Jonathon’s home, our guide, for a party.
After trekking across the entire width of Singapore, Jonathon’s ever-present smile signaled we had arrived, and he ushered us graciously into a space with a beautiful pool and barbecue pits, where he and other NUS students made us dinner. Following the chicken and beef, Jonathon’s grin then changed to one of wicked accomplishment, and he pulled out three large bags of marshmallows, chocolate, and crackers: the perfect ingredients for S’mores. It was pretty much a fantastic evening.
Monday and Tuesday, however, marked the beginning of death, or, in other words, the beginning of the presentations. Yet, despite the worry and continuous deprivation of sleep that we had incurred in the name of perfection, each presentation was executed skillfully and even a bit humorously. It was amazing how much each of us truly learned about our topics in such a short amount of time, especially considering we had to balance studying with the final need to explore. Everyone performed very well and far better than they had imagined. And, most importantly, it was a class well done.
The next day dawned as the end of the module “History of Thailand,” taught by Professor Lockhart, and the last one contained within the course “History of Southeast Asia.” It was an interesting sensation to be finished. On one hand, we each have a little bit of that typical student in us that yearns to do nothing other than play and sleep. Yet it’s never that simple because, though we may display some of those traits, none of us are truly the typical student, or we would not have been given such a fantastic opportunity to go on this trip. I think each of us, despite the early hour and accompanying work load, actually truly enjoyed discovering more about the region. We like to learn, as much as we play it off.
However, the truth was that we were not as finished as we would like to pretend. The final paper beckoned us to the library, the kitchen, or the mattress of our beds as those of us who weren’t wise enough to complete it beforehand. Frantically trying to put words together on a page, Wednesday paused only when the farewell dinner arrived.
When we first filed into the Korean barbecue restaurant, the teachers and many of the friends that we had met over the course of the past six weeks welcomed us. They taught us the proper methods to frying the raw material we had collected from the buffet on the grills at each table. We simply sat there, laughing and talking about classes and the various places we had visited. Mainly, though, we poked fun at one another and relived great moments that had occurred in Singapore, content to just be with friends.
Great plans of last minute visits intermingled with the last rush to finish the papers marked Thursday, our final day in Singapore. A few crammed on buses to go to Sentosa, some saw friends that they had met while here, while others washed clothes and packed in preparation for the impending flight. When I shuffled into the laundry room around one in the morning, at least two other students waved at me and shot me that “I will be so dead tomorrow but I will stubbornly grin through it right now” look.
Yet it didn’t feel as if it were tinged with finality, like we were really leaving. For some reason, life there had not exactly become routine, but it now seemed normal. We were confident in our knowledge of the MRT system, the places with the best music, the location of the best Prata, which was of course absolutely essential. It didn’t feel possible that it would all end the next day, that we would never return to this island nation, at least never together. For better or worse, for all the bus rides and nights reading, we had forged this temporary existence and camaraderie that could never be formed anywhere else. It simply didn’t seem possible that it could ever not be.
The next morning refused to be queued, however. (Singapore will quickly teach you that the word “queue” is indeed a verb.) The best of us having five hours of sleep, the worst none at all, we still somehow all made it down to the steps of PGP at 7:00 in the morning. Our hair might not have been perfect, and those dark circles might have been glaring underneath our eyes, but we were there. Somehow. Better yet, each of us towed at least two to three bags behind us, many with intentions of buying more once we hit the cheap sales of Thailand. We were truly a gorgeous and motley group.
After passing Jonathon our keys, we boarded the Comfort Bus for a last trip to the Changi Airport. Proudly I can report that not a single bag was listed as overweight, and we trotted relatively quickly up to the departure gate. There were no major mishaps, no forgotten passports. When we boarded the plane, I got the impression that leaving Singapore was almost too easy. I guess I simply didn’t want it to let us go.
Yet once we were sitting in the cushy Singapore Airlines seats, everyone was bouncing through their sleepiness with excitement for Thailand. The flight lasted barely an hour and a half, and, before we knew it, we had been ushered through customs in Bangkok. After collecting our bags, we met our guide, Professor Brian Phillips, who led us to our new bus. We didn’t have too much time to remark on the startling differences in this new city and Singapore before we all dozed off on the drive towards the rainforest.
Dinner took place at a Western-style roadhouse, where we met our Thai student counterparts. It was quite an interesting affair for some, who tried valiantly to keep their feet on the ground and not pointed at anyone nearby, as we had explicitly been told. Afterwards, unaware previously that the massive pile of luggage we owned would not be accompanying us to our lodges that night, we all threw clothes over the gravel parking lot, desperately trying to cram three outfits and toiletries into one bag. Another short ride, a change to a more hard duty bus for climbing the mountains, followed by a brief introduction to the national park, and we crashed down onto the bed pallets offered in the lodge.
It’s hard living the life of a traveler.
The wakeup call in the morning was especially brutal. The words “6:00 am” still make me want to break down in tears. But breakfast was fantastic, and it was great getting a better chance to mingle with the Thai students. We were told to dress in long pants with sneakers or boots for our journey through the rainforest, and then were divided neatly into three separate groups.
They then passed us all “leech socks.” These beautiful pieces of cloth covered our normal socks and tied over our pants at the knees, which quite an intriguing idea for those of us who didn’t realize. We didn’t realize that leaches are not slug-sized parasites confined to the flowing rivers. No, they were much sneakier than this. They were smaller than earth worms and found teeming over the dank ground in the forest, stealthily squeezing their way in between our shoes, searching for blood.
Really. The little vampires. I’m a bit possessive about my blood.
The hike itself, on the other hand, was absolutely spectacular. We traversed over logs, maneuvered our way past thorns, slid down steep slopes coated in slippery red mud, and waded creeks to witness the wildlife and wonder of nature. Some saw spiders, beautiful flowers, puffed-up toucans, long-limbed and arrogant gibbons swinging through the trees, and even the signs of elephants that had wandered through shortly before. Sure, a few people fell in the river, and most of us were a bit put off by the leeches, but I don’t think anyone wanted to actually leave the forest. It was that fantastic.
Although we believed that we had finished with our onstage debuts, it turned out we were wrong. After dinner, each group was charged with creating some kind of entertaining performance. They were all…interesting, to say the least. Group number 1: an interpretive dance of Carolina’s alma mater. Group number 2: a musical number with forks, spoons, and cups. Group number 3: a reproduction of our trip to Changi Prison. As I said before, interesting.
Once the mockery was complete, all of the UNC students and faculty were ushered up the stairs so that the MUIC group could prepare a surprise. When we came back down, the patio was bathed in candlelight, and we were all sprinkled gently as we walked past. We sat in a circle, and then Brian proceeded to tell us of the ceremony usually performed at MUIC, where the older students welcome the younger students as family and apologize for whatever wrongs they had incurred in the fun beforehand. The MUIC students knelt before the UNC students, clutching white strings they dipped in candle wax, meant to seal the promises of good fortune, and tied them gently around our wrists.
Up till this point, fortune seemed to have gone our way. Seriously, we had been in Singapore and now we were in Thailand, surrounded by friends and good food. So what if we had to work. So what if we had no sleep. So what if we’d spent the day fending off blood-sucking leeches. We were in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we were there at the good will of others.
It couldn’t have been a better or more complete week. Except for the sleep. We’ll see about next week.