Sleepless Nights, Sleepless Flights: The Journey to Singapore

(January 2, written retroactively)

With tired shoulders and stiff neck, I arrived in Singapore on January 1, ringing in the New Year on the plane. I’m currently writing from my hotel room in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown, where I served my brief self-isolation while awaiting my on-arrival COVID test results (thankfully, negative!).

New Jersey to New York

My journey to Singapore began on December 30 with a 2-hour drive from my home in South Jersey to JFK Airport in New York. Being the over-punctual person I am, I arrived 5 hours before my flight. From there, I would embark on the first part of my official journey – a 6.5-hour overnight flight to Frankfurt, Germany for a 12-hour layover. 

Last glimpses of NJ/NY

While this was not my first time flying internationally, it was my first time flying solo. As an inexperienced flyer intimidated by the idea of a layover, a slew of questions filled my mind: Will my luggage be automatically transferred to the next flight? Do I have to go through security again in Frankfurt? What if I don’t have all the documents that they ask for (even though I must’ve checked a hundred times)? And even though I asked these questions to the appropriate staff at the counters and received reassuring answers, for some reason, I was not 100% eased by them. The only way to know for sure, I thought, was to get to the other side of the world and see for myself.

After a rather overwhelming and intimidating security process being caught in a rip current of holiday travelers, rummaging through my bags while being rushed by TSA, I found myself on my way to the boarding gate, where I would nervously fiddle with my passport and boarding pass for the next two hours. As I texted my farewells to my parents, family and friends, the cabin crew made a fashionable entrance through the gate, stewards in their sleek navy suits and stewardesses donning their vibrant sarong kebayas. 

New York to Frankfurt

The flight was a brief respite from the apprehension, in part because this wouldn’t be my first time in Frankfurt (I had flown into Frankfurt some years ago for a high school exchange). I even had a brief opportunity to practice my German comprehension skills when the plane announcements were translated to German! And of course, flying with one of the best-ranked airlines in the world meant that I would be taken care of in true Singapore style.

For dinner that night I opted for a pulled pork mac and cheese served alongside a mini cup of Haagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream – not too shabby for airplane food.

I braced myself for light sleep and, after a few naps, found myself on the other side of the Atlantic six hours later, triggering the next wave of questions: What should I do for the next 13 hours? Where do I check in for the next flight? Am I allowed to go outside? Will I catch Omicron while waiting in the airport for this long? What will happen if I test positive in Singapore? At the same time, other passengers began awakening from their slumber, lifting their window shades to let the morning light filter through. Soon enough, we touched down in Germany around 8am, a bit earlier than expected.

Upon disembarking the plane, I immediately headed to the airport convenience store for my first order of business… to reunite with some of my favorite German food items: Sour Haribo gummy bears and Apfelschorle, then to the airport cafe for a warm, soft Brezel (pretzel). 

Most of my day was spent aimlessly wandering up and down the terminal to pass the time (and to get my daily steps in before the final leg). I couldn’t leave Frankfurt without having some German food, so I feasted on some crispy, juicy Wiener Schnitzel garnished with lemon and served with fries and lingonberry jam, momentarily whisking me away to my last memories in Germany.

Hat gut geschmeckt 🙂

As I sat at the gate anticipating the next leg of my trip, it became clear to me that I had overcomplicated the whole layover process in my head. I’d definitely do more solo flights in the future for the exhilarating feeling of independence I felt on this trip. However, the relief of this realization was short-lived. In the final hours before boarding the next plane to Singapore, I grew a bit paranoid again, shuffling through my folder of neatly-organized documents for the 101st time. Also, this next leg was a designated Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) flight, a flight for fully vaccinated travelers to Singapore that allows one to bypass the normal 7-10 day quarantine requirement of normal passengers. A few days before, I had read some articles online reporting that an overwhelming majority of Omicron cases in Singapore had been imported by VTL travelers, adding to my anxieties – what if I really do test positive in Singapore? 

I eventually accepted the fact that I’ve done as much as I could at that point. The moment I make it through Changi Airport, get to my hotel, and receive my next COVID test results will be when I can finally stop worrying. At the end of this journey will be the answer to all my worries, either a pot of gold or a positive test; I just have to keep following the rainbow.

Frankfurt to Singapore

The second leg from Frankfurt to Singapore, a 12-hour flight on New Year’s Eve, was the most comfortable and smooth despite being nearly twice as long as the first. I was lucky enough to have the entire row to myself, so I kicked my feet up and succumbed to the exhaustion of a long day.

Did I just get the lucky seat?

My naps were apparently so long that the flight attendant had to wake me up for each meal – SIA certainly prepares your palate for the Singapore flavors with meals like fish with rice and sambal and stir-fried ee fu beef noodles.

Noodles for breakfast…?

My other in-flight activities ranged from reading, to listening to music (the entertainment system had a great selection of k-pop, j-pop, and classical music!), to more mindless rituals, like decluttering my phone and peering through the window crack to gape at the miles of empty desert below. Before I knew it, we were soaring over the azure waters of the Malacca Strait, descending through the mist and rain-saturated clouds to meet the runway.


We arrived at Singapore Changi Airport at about 4:45pm on Saturday, January 1, also earlier than expected. The air thickened as soon as the plane came to a stop, and in the heat of the anticipation, I grew agitated as I waited to disembark the plane. 

Alright, here we go…

From disembarkation to exiting the airport, the entire arrival process was very efficient and orderly (as expected). The airport signage clearly directed passengers through the airport in English and Mandarin.

I followed the stream of passengers to my first queue in Singapore (of many to come): the immigration checkpoint.

This was it, the moment I’d been waiting for. Feeling my heart beginning to pound, I proceeded to the counter, pulled out my folder of documents, and handed my documents one by one to the ICA officer, scrutinizing her facial expressions as she examined them and typed on her computer. After handing my documents back and taking my iris and thumbprint scans, the officer motioned me to move along. I was now standing at the other side – I had successfully entered Singapore! 

After a brief sigh of relief, I pushed on to baggage claim, where I crossed my fingers and hoped that my luggage wasn’t still stuck in Frankfurt somewhere. A few minutes of anxious waiting passed and lo and behold, there was my lucky green suitcase riding around the carousel.

With luggage in tow, I weaved through the next flow of passengers headed toward the on-arrival COVID testing site, where I stood in another queue and subsequently had a swab shoved up my nose.

Finally, I was directed to the airport taxi stand outside where I was greeted by the humid Singapore air and a friendly taxi driver who, to my surprise, got into the driver’s seat on the right hand side of the car. Right – Singapore, a former British colony!

On the East Coast Parkway, traffic seemed to move in reverse, evoking memories of my time in South Africa. We coasted westward down the ECP en route to the city center, passing bushes of magenta flowers planted along the median. As we neared the city, I caught a glimpse of some of Singapore’s most iconic structures: the Esplanade, the Singapore Flyer, the magical supertrees at Gardens by the Bay, and of course, the wondrous, imposing Marina Bay Sands.

After 20 minutes, we reached my hotel in the heart of Chinatown. I paid and thanked my driver and watched him drive off. Because it was drizzling, I didn’t even take the time to digest the sights and sounds of the city; I swiftly headed inside to check in, my last time seeing the light of day until Monday.

Self-Isolation to Self-Relaxation

Despite having no windows, my hotel room was pretty cozy, the perfect size for a solo traveler. It was dinnertime by the time I arrived at my hotel, and since I wasn’t allowed to leave self-isolation yet, my first meal in Singapore would be a food delivery. I downloaded Grab, Southeast Asia’s Uber/DoorDash equivalent, to order my dinner that night. The hotel placed a foldable table by my door for deliveries that the front desk would kindly bring up to my room.

Turns out that Chinatown was the perfect place for a foodie like myself to self-isolate. Amazed and overwhelmed by the selection of food options, but also in dire need of some comfort after the 31-hour journey, I ultimately decided on Singapore’s national dish for my first meal: chicken rice.

And for making the trip in one piece with no hiccups along the way, I also decided to reward myself with a refreshing bubble milk tea from Chicha San Chen.

My tummy was happy and full, but my mind was restless and jet-lagged. While trying to unwind in bed, I also found myself constantly refreshing my inbox for the email that would determine my fate for the next week – my tranquilizer, if you will. My attempts to distract myself with random Malay dramas and Chinese news were a bit futile, but the clock eventually struck midnight (actually, more like 11:24pm) and the message came:

Although I ended up staying up the whole night anyway with my messed-up body clock, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I got here all on my own – from New York, to Germany, to Singapore – basically halfway around the world. To date, this journey alone has been one of my greatest personal achievements. At the end of the day, I felt like I could do anything. 

But the next challenge awaits me on Monday: Get to NTU on the other side of the island.

A Message from the Office of Global Engagement:

The safety and security of Drexel students is a priority for the University. As part of the efforts to support Drexel students that are studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Global Engagement has conducted a rigorous review of programming and provided additional support to participating students with customized pre-departure orientations and regular check-ins during the required self-isolation period and the term.

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