MY favorite in Singapore’s sprawling, stupendous Changi Airport are the toilets.
During two recent stopovers, I learned that this hub, serving “more than 300 destinations in 60 countries,” offers free Skytrain and shuttle bus services, as well as travellators, a slow-moving conveyor that replaces walking, to connect terminals.
Those missing the free guided city tour can console themselves at over 350 retail outlets in the Changi Transit Area, selling everything from duty-free diamonds to gold-plated orchids.
If Omega, Bottega Veneta and Hermès leave one cold, there are alternatives: the Orchid Garden, Kinetic Rain Sculpture, Porcelain of Asia Exhibition, swimming pool, 24-hour movie theater, and others, all housed in this gateway-city. Heaven forbid boredom will ever flit, however fleetingly, in the mind of a Changi visitor.
But even Changi sleeps.
Past midnight, the airport temperature drops to an Arctic chill. Some retreat to the Transit Hotel where, for 110 SGD, one can have six hours of sleep and a shower. I sat down to read in a “snooze chair,” a free amenity in the public areas of Changi.
Either the bright lights or the eternal chill woke me at 3 a.m. Or most likely, encroaching age. I walked, avoiding the insidious travellators. I walked past clots of black-uniformed airport security with high-powered weapons.
I walked with a silent army of cleaners, all Asians. The young and dark-skinned shampooed and vacuumed the omnipresent carpet and couches.
Stoic elderly Asians form part of the force maintaining Changi’s outward perfection. They change, blossom by blossom, the imposing orchid installations. They feed the fat, lazy koi. They push sprinklers, which spray a fine mist on the indoor bamboo groves, gigantic ferns, and alien cacti, whose moisture-storing spikes must compensate for the absence of sunlight and fresh air.
This silent geriatric army looks after the waste left by the foraging hordes. Every pluperfect toilet in Changi has a computer screen showing the profile of the cleaning lady, along with a touch-screen system of emoticons for rating the facility from excellent to poor.
Rating the toilets excellent every time, I gazed at the screen image of the toilet ladies. Outside Changi, they could be grandmothers and elder aunts; in Changi, they are the perfect workers, never seen except for the work they leave behind: the spotless, scented toilets.
Then during a pre-dawn ramble, I came upon a toilet lady. A cardboard box was disassembled and spread under her sleeping, uniformed figure. A square of cloth covered her face.
But I recognized my Asian sister. Back home, cardboard boxes are also reused: for the homeless to sleep on; for those servicing laborers who, in the contemporary version of Russian roulette, may get sexually transmitted infections along with paid sex; for passing cardboard justice on the extrajudicially murdered.
This faceless woman gambled in choosing sleep over duty. Foreign workers comprise 29 percent of the labor force of Singapore, the highest in Asia. Never lacking a queue, even in the blue hours of dawn, is Changi’s immigration and checkpoints terminal.
Which is stronger: fear of poverty or the desire to sleep and forget? Two Asian sisters—one sleeping, the other sleepless—sought answers in Changi’s most hospitable: its toilets.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 6, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”