This is the first of a three-part series about our family trip, with my parents-in-law, to India and Singapore, on which I reflect about the complexity of my response to the question, “How was your trip?”
I’m embarrassed by the speed with which the word “grueling” comes to mind, fully aware that everything we did was not only a choice but a serious luxury. Who am I to complain about cramped seats, about the hassles of security lines, the inconveniences of flight delays and post-flight hangovers? I opted to put myself in those positions, to exercise, in the option itself, enormous privilege.
Still, it cannot be denied: the seats are cramped. Prolonged exposure to weird air pressure and controlled oxygen, poor sleep, turbulence, bloating; winding roads, serious potholes, relentless heat … it would be wrong to complain. And yet, they do take a toll on the body.
Our first evening in Singapore, those of us still left standing after the red-eye flight and city tour, decided to venture out. We wanted to eat something, and the hotel, though serviceable, was uninviting. I was dubbed “team leader” by virtue of my willingness to read a map and asked to locate Indian food. Settling into a pace that could accommodate both the oldest in our group (70) and the youngest (9), I led us on a non-scenic route down a main thoroughfare towards Little India. (Here I should note that, while this pace was approximately 25% of my own usual, the oldest and youngest were on the whole displaying the greatest stamina of the bunch. They hadn’t even napped!)
After dragging along for about 25 minutes, my daughter wilting for want of some juice (it was all she wanted for dinner, but we had no cash), we spotted an Indian restaurant on the corner. We had reached Little India. “You have a credit card on you, right?” I asked my father-in-law. If yes, we could, at the very least, pack the falling-apart people in a cab back to the hotel. If no — I had a horrible vision of trying to drag my daughter back the way we’d came, without having found even so much as a glass of juice.
“I have a credit card. But that’s a high-end one,” he said, nodding at the restaurant that flashed its lights on the corner. He was probably right. “Why don’t you all stand here for a minute, and I’ll run down the block and see if there’s something more basic?” I suggested. It would save us about 30 minutes.
“Erin,” my mother-in-law piped in. “Whatever you want, we’ll take it.” I burst out laughing. We were surrounded by inexpensive rice shops and dumpling stands; the reason we had trekked all this way was their desire for Indian food. (Plus, have I mentioned we had no cash? This turned out to be a surprisingly large hurdle in Singapore.) The absurdity of the idea that I would choose the place … I wasn’t even hungry!
“No way,” I said. I may have stamped my foot.
Everything turned out fine. The restaurant on the corner wasn’t too high-end. Their menu satisfied my companions and they took credit cards. The helpful manager instructed us on how to catch a cab and even changed some money for us. As I had hoped, at the meal’s end we bundled the oldest and the youngest into a cab bound for the hotel (though not before they insisted on waiting an extra 20 minutes on food to bring back to the sleeping parties back at the hotel, who, as predicted, did not wake to eat it).
Above all I was struck by the odd position in which I found myself: at the mercy of someone else’s travel arrangements, yet also the de facto leader of the expedition. It’s been a long time since I had that “What the heck am I doing here?” feeling, so utterly without bearings. It pulled distinctly at a memory of a late-night train ride to a office-building-like hostel in the middle of nowhere, Denmark, when my friend Tina and I had set out with no plan but Eurail passes and a guidebook the January of our sophomore year of college. This time, though, I was also responsible for others besides myself, a burden — but also an honor — I did not have then.