The Missing Link

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Singapore  ,
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

I arrived in Singapore at 11:30 at night, on return from a recent trip to visit family in Canada. I was bleary-eyed but in surprisingly good shape because I'd managed to get a few hours of sleep on the six-hour journey from Seoul. I fell asleep shortly after takeoff, and before I knew it we were circling the golden lights of the city in the darkness-it felt like the shortest flight I've ever had.
Unlike in Indonesia, everything went off without a hitch; I picked up my luggage from the conveyor belt in record time and called the man at the South East Asia Hotel to let him know I had arrived. ("It is a point of honor," he had told me. "We must trust that you call when you arrive or we will miss renting the room to someone else.") Then I jumped in a cab and off we went into the smooth-flowing darkness, the sparse and efficient traffic. It did take some time to find the hotel because it is tucked down a side street next to the Kuan Yin Temple and you can't get to it directly. We had to circle a bit, but we found it and I checked in to a plain but clean room facing the street.
In the morning, I woke up to the sound of Chinese music. It felt luxurious to have three days to explore the city before returning to work in Medan. When I looked out of my window, people were opening their yellow and red umbrellas, putting out big pots of lotus blossoms, hanging up jasmine garlands, and setting up stalls for telling fortunes. People were gathering in the morning sunlight in front of the temple, and so I had a quick shower and went out to investigate.
As at the temple in Georgetown, Penang, worshippers stood at the entrance and waved bunches of burning incense sticks above their heads, eyes closed and bowing when they completed their prayers. Dragons-Kuan Yin's preferred mode of transportation-coiled like springs guarding the entranceway, their whiskers curling and fierce smiles scaring away evil spirits.
I bought a single pink lotus blossom from one of the flower sellers to make my offering and entered through the main pillars. Inside were six more pillars, inscribed with Chinese characters. Between them was a massive square of red carpet, lined around the edges with flip flops and sparkling high-heeled sandals. Worshippers knelt or sat cross-legged in the centre, praying before a golden altar bearing a statue of Kuan Yin as the thousand-armed goddess, ready to help the world.
Incense streamed through the air like smoke from a dragon's nostrils. The sound of rattling sticks in tins echoed through the temple-people who want to know their fortunes on life, love or money shake the canisters until a stick falls out, then they take the stick to the fortune teller outside to see if their wishes will come true. I was tempted to try it, but I'm done with fortunes. Before I came to southeast Asia, I decided to take matters into my own hands and create my own future. Or co-create it with the powers that be.
I took my lotus blossom to the altar where oranges, oil and flowers had been left in offering. Following the motions of the others around me, I held the blossom in my hands next to my heart and closed my eyes. I didn't ask for anything. I simply meditated on the beauty of the flower and gave thanks for all that has been given to me in this life. My heart filled up as though it were a well; suddenly it spilled over and a tear squeezed out of the corner of my eyes, overwhelming me with a feeling that I could not quite identify. Not grief, nor joy; maybe pure thankfulness.
Sometimes I get an overwhelming urge to cry when something moves me. One of the most poignant times was when my friend Sara and I went to the Roadside Attraction out in Abbotsford, British Columbia, a group of outdoor concerts headlined by the Canadian band, the Barenaked Ladies. The concert took place on the land of the Stolo First Nations. During the day the Stolo people put on a dance, and out came these beautiful children to do the jingle dance, the little bells on their traditional costumes jingling with every footstep. The adults wore them too, and they moved together in a circle-grandmas, grandpas, sons, daughters, grandchildren-so joyful and content to be together.
I was overwhelmed because I had never seen such a thing before; it was the first time I had witnessed the cultural tradition of a nation similar to that of my own ancestors. Something deep welled up in me like a wave. When I saw that Sara was getting teary too, I knew it was not just a feeling in my own blood but something that we the audience felt-our common ancestry as human beings on this planet, reaching to each other across the divide. It was more than sentimental. In hindsight, after finding a similar connection with the people of Indonesia, I feel much more profoundly that there is a vital, missing link lacking in western culture, a true connection not just to our families and ancestors, but to each other. It's such a simple thing, but so vital to happiness.
By the end, the dance troupe invited the audience to come onto the stage and join in. We came together and danced in concentric circles, hands linked, and for a short time I felt complete and utter joy in the dance, no longer separate from humanity.
In the temple I once again connected, this time with something deep inside, that tide of joy always ebbing and flowing. Maybe I get the urge to cry because it's such a relief to find that connection again, however brief. I opened my eyes to find the other worshippers looking at me, the only westerner among them. I smiled, and the people smiled back. I placed the flower on the altar and went out into the bright sunlight of a fresh Singapore morning.

The South East Asia Hotel is located at 190 Waterloo Street. Tel: (65) 6338-2394 Reservations:

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