Commentary: I never planned to visit Hong Kong anytime soon, but the air travel bubble might change that
In a dark year marred with uncertainty and struggle, the inability to travel forces us to reflect on the role of travel in our lives. It’s less about where we go than what it signifies: A sense of hope.
SINGAPORE: As much as I relish the adventure of visiting a foreign country, the thing I miss most about travelling is the time spent waiting between check-in and boarding the plane.
This specific window before takeoff often felt like a liminal space with infinite possibilities to do anything, from ordering overpriced nasi lemak at the foodcourt as a mandatory pre-flight ritual to buying a trashy magazine from the bookstore for the flight.
When I frequently embarked on solo adventures, I would arrive at the airport several hours before my flight so I could fully indulge in this valuable stretch of time, without having to accommodate a travel partner.
I’d often wander into the souvenir stores with rows of perfume, tote bags and random knick-knacks designed to convince customers they need another mug in their lives. They might be mere tourist traps, but their forgettable presence was the perfect balm for a mindless stroll to calm any pre-flight nerves.
It wasn’t just what I did, but who I could be during these few hours that felt inconsequential, and hence wholly liberating, precisely because this duration was inherently transient.
Something about being conscious you’re in a fleeting moment makes people do brave things — like finally getting around to sending that risky professional email or texting someone you have feelings for a few minutes before your flight takes off, knowing you can only see their reply when you land.
No matter how dearly I wanted to arrive at my destination to begin my holiday, getting to soak in the boundless anticipation of these few hours would momentarily eclipse where I was headed.
Even though this year’s travel plans were thrown into disarray thanks to the pandemic, my wanderlust has been kept largely under control. Whenever the travel bug bit, I’d successfully fought those feelings off by reminding myself how much money I was saving and that no one was travelling so I wasn’t missing out.
Besides, would I really have wanted to undergo the hassle of testing, quarantining and more just to end up in a place where most attractions have shuttered, with the uncertainty of changes in travel restrictions if the coronavirus winds switched direction?
But when the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore said that the air travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong would begin on Nov 22, I felt a sudden, unexpected pang of nostalgia for this window of time before boarding my flight, where I’d stroll around the airport experiencing the closest thing to unburdened joy.
WHAT THE AIR TRAVEL BUBBLE REALLY MEANS
When the air travel bubble was announced, I immediately looked up a return trip to Hong Kong on a Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight.
On Nov 11 around 5pm, the cost of an economy ticket began from S$520 in December and January, and S$482 in February, according to SIA’s website.
But those were apparently nothing compared to more than S$1,000 for flights on Nov 22 itself, as a colleague reported.
READ: Air tickets between Singapore and Hong Kong on Nov 22 sell out, economy class seats hit S$1,000
Understandably, some friends were put off by the price and didn’t think the amount was worth it for Hong Kong, while others did not want to be the “guinea pigs” lest they somehow catch COVID-19, never mind that Hong Kong’s number of new daily infections have stayed more or less below 10 for the last two weeks.
It appeared the success of the air travel bubble would largely rest on ensuring the logistics underpinning the process are foolproof, even if this means travel might be cumbersome for the foreseeable future.
In this case, travellers would need to take COVID-19 tests before departing and after arriving in both destinations, and follow stringent public health and safe distancing measures in each country.
These measures are but a necessary hurdle that some travellers would gladly cross. For those who have been unable to reunite with their loved ones in either country, I imagine hearing news of the air travel bubble must have felt like a deep exhale, after holding their breath for the entire year.
There are also the regular travellers to Hong Kong, who might have felt deprived of their annual getaway to one of Singaporeans' favourite playgrounds to eat and shop.
READ: Eager to come home, Singaporeans based in Hong Kong start booking flights before travel bubble starts
READ: Requirements for Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble not meant to be 'totally symmetrical': Ong Ye Kung
Then there is the final sort of traveller: Those who might not want to visit Hong Kong, or never planned to return to the city anytime soon, but simply long to travel again. I am, unashamedly, part of this group.
For me, the yearning for travel is often rooted in a more philosophical practice, destination be damned.
TRAVEL AS TRANSFORMATION
There is a whole school of thought that talks about travel as a way to expand one’s mind and broaden one’s perspectives.
Countless travel writers wax lyrical about experiencing different cultures from the eyes of locals, whether it means sitting on a stool by the roadside drinking beer or living in a homestay in the heart of the backcountry. Travel memoirs also often extol the healing power of a long sabbatical spent travelling the world after a life-changing loss.
These lessons gleaned on the road carry a sort of secular enlightenment — not just about the world we live in, but often about ourselves. The art of travel is essentially the art of self-discovery.
Travel also promises the suspension of reality, and with it, a chance to reinvent yourself.
“Every time I’m in an airport, I think I should drastically change my life,” begins Ada Limón’s poem, The Problem With Travel.
No matter how many times I’ve travelled, this feeling that I can dip into a parallel universe never gets old. It convinces me I can start over anytime, like all that separates me from who I’ve settled into being and all the other people I could have been is a flimsy veil that I can simply lift and slide under into some other better, different version of myself.
In any other year, this notion of travel would be inane, pretentious and almost tone deaf — a first-world problem like no other.
But this year, plagued by economic uncertainty, job loss and quiet desperation, remembering the feeling of sheer possibility intrinsic to travelling rekindles the hope that’s been exchanged for a sense of heaviness.
While I might not be willing to fork out a four-figure sum to travel to Hong Kong, I understand why many would and why tickets for Nov 22 have sold out.
If Hong Kong remains the only air travel bubble for the foreseeable future and I do end up making a trip, it would be less about returning to the bustling city than what travel itself means to me from start to end.
In the few hours between check-in and takeoff that contained the weightlessness of new beginnings, I often felt self-sufficient, invisible and free.
There is an almost baptismal quality to moving through airport security checks on the way to the lounge before you board your flight, as though once you lay your luggage on the carousel, you shed both physical and metaphorical weight — and I would like to feel light again.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider.