9 KILOMETERS. I am at the checkpoint of my first leg of the walk. My body have warmed up just as the day is starting to get cooler with the setting evening sun. Starting the walk at 6pm meant that this walk would last into the night and I was prepared to skip dinner in exchange for a walk-friendly weather.
The idea for this walk is to start at my neighbourhood of Tampines and head to East Coast Beach. Then, walk eastwards towards Changi Airport, go around it, and travel along Changi Beach before ending the route at Changi Village. The highlight of this walk was to be Tanah Merah Coast Road, which from my reading of the map, is the eastern-most road on the island and also possibly one of the longest, perfectly straight stretch of road in Singapore. The road skirts around the reclaimed land that was slated for the expansion of Changi Airport which is to include a 5th terminal and a 3rd runway, and this explains its flatness and straightness. This is also why the real challenge for this particular walk lies not in the distance, but the form of the walk.
As part of Singapore’s Round-Island Route, this stretch of road is popular with cyclists, joggers, and walkers. However, the closer one gets to the end of East Coast Beach, the number of people on foot drops significantly. By the time I was at Tanah Merah Coast Road, it seemed like I was the only one pounding foot on pavement. I should have noticed that the route was trying to tell me something.
On my left, beyond the vehicular roads, was a layered security fence that separated me from Changi Airport’s runways. There were some small structures and machines behind the fence and on the tarmac were some support vehicles and aeroplanes that seemed like they were just lounging around. There was very little taking off and landing action at one of the world’s busiest airport and it disoriented me slightly. I also knew that the sea was on my right but the thick vegetation and construction barriers prevented me from enjoying the view nor the breeze. Signages in four languages and diagrams reminded me of the consequences of trespassing this, and so I walked.
There wasn’t much to see around except the pavement ahead and the darkening sky overhead. There is some landscaping along the sides of the path but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The entire scene was just a minuscule fraction more than utilitarian. I tried to find something to look at and focus my attention but the pavement ahead simply converged into a single point in the distance. I decided to adjust my gaze just far enough to give me a point of reference, but not too far into infinity.
Every so often, there comes a point in my walks where I get into a rhythm, a state of flow so to speak. A space develops between me and the world, and the surrounding sounds and sights detaches just a little bit from my body. I start to feel as though I am gliding through the breeze like swimming through water. Quiet takes over and I can hear my breathing. Everything fades into periphery and it is just rubber on concrete, one foot pushing forward followed by the other, one breath in to replace the out, a tick and a tock like a metronome. The featureless-ness of the road helped to bring me into this zone and it made me feel like I’ve covered a good distance in this state of flow. However, my watch empirically told me otherwise. It’s only been 2km. I took out my phone to check my location and saw that I’m not even on the main straight stretch yet. Oh damn.
11 KILOMETERS. Walking is a solitary act and for me, a quiet one where I do not listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts. I can get through long stretches like this just fine but the occasional stimulation keeps me going just a little bit more. It mentally breaks the journey into manageable chunks while not devouring my attention away completely. This could be small things like the changing of signals at the traffic light, the laughter of a family having a picnic, or the bright running gear of a couple jogging together, anything. In between, my mind would travel to something that I’m working on, or a thing that I need to process in my head before I bring it back to my posture, breath, and step rhythm. This attention fluctuation adds a little bit of texture to my walk but on this particular stretch of road, there was nothing on the outside for me. It was monotony. I tried to bring my focus back. I resisted taking out my phone from my bag to check my location on the map. I kept walking and tried to empty my mind but after about 3 km of walking this way, my mind took a little trip.
14 KILOMETERS. I started to play a game with myself and wondered how many cars I would encounter on the journey. It was a terrible game. There were none. Instead, there were a few lorries with migrant workers sitting at its back, a few empty trucks, and a couple of passenger vans parked by the side of the road.
I realised I haven’t seen a walker or a jogger for a long stretch. There’s a handful of cyclists at best and some of them had music playing loudly through their portable speakers. I noticed how the speed of their music slowed down the further they got away from me. It was like listening to a wind-up music box losing energy and having the singer slow down to a slur. At first, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me but then after a while, I became certain that there was a science to this. Speed of sound, speed of my pace, and the speed of the cyclist all connected in some relativity formula which I wouldn’t be able to Einstein it out.
16 KILOMETERS. Didn’t I just pass by this stretch before? No it can’t be. My legs haven’t stopped moving since more than two hours ago. A body in motion will stay in motion unless there is a net force acting upon it and I’m not sure that I have enough thrust to get myself moving at this pace again if I were to stop for a break. What is up with these science references? Just keep walking. The road is still straight.
I tried to find something to hold on to. Sounds. Toads croaking, crickets chirping, but there’s something else. It sounds like a creature. Not quite a roar but a combination of a wail and a shriek pulled out from a raspy throat. It’s one of those indeterminate sounds of urban development coming from a machine and it became a sonic checkpoint for me to keep moving to.
A few hundred meters later and I saw it from a distance. A tower of metal about 5 storeys high with a flag and a blinking red light at the top to signal its presence. Hidden in the cloak of night, this mechanical creature had a metal piston inside its exposed bones of steel and it looked like it was probing into the ground beneath its feet. Then, I heard another mechanistic roar. A fiercer one. I imagined that it came from a growling small mecha-godzilla who is upset at an intruder. But it was actually just another one of those machines sitting on the other side of the fence doing something that I have no idea about. The epic battle between machines played out in my head and kept me entertained for a little bit as I walked.
18 KILOMETERS. I feel everything in my body. Over the past few kilometers, I have tangibly felt the achiness and tiredness creeping up from below. It started with my feet, ankles, then a tightness that seems to have crawled its way up my calves, thighs, and eventually my butt. And what’s this? Is that my hips feeling tired? Have I even felt this part of my body before? I tried to adjust my gait and posture to find a new equilibrium. I then got distracted by nothingness and later realised that the pain was gone.
At this point the mental conversations in my head have gone slightly wild. “What kind of bullshit route is this? It’s nonsense. No, this is mental endurance. This is terrible, there’s not even a single tree that is interesting to look at along the way. Fuck, give me something to work with here. Maybe just a bend in the fucking road? No, let’s count our steps and breathe and connect to the larger universe. No, you count your own steps and shut up. Ok, let’s sing since no one is around. You make sure no one hears this. Oh look, finally an aeroplane landing. Oh look, you’re happy to be distracted. Just keep walking you fool.”
20 KILOMETERS. Even without looking at the map, I knew that this road would come to an end soon. It had to. I pep-talked myself for this stretch by considering what drink I should buy upon reaching Changi Village Hawker Centre. 100 Plus. No, coconut juice. Mmmm, yum. How about, sugar cane juice with lemon, and let’s make it a big cup. Yes, yes. Oh wait, Bandung? That’s it. Rose syrup with condensed milk. Basically, sugar and ice water. Yes, that’s the one that will hit the spot. That became the mental image which provided me the boost to overcome another stretch of infinitum. But the biggest boost was when I saw the road markings start to curve.
I have never been happier to see a bend in a road. The curve in the safety barriers and road kerbs shifted the lay of the land ahead and I felt energised once again. After spending almost two hours of walking on a super-straight road, that slight change in geometry and topography was a relief. It may not have been the end of the walk but it felt like the finishing line for my mental exertions. I was a little tired but getting loose from that straight jacket (pun fully intended) gave me the motivation to go for a final sprint. There is still 4km to go but now I’ve got the wind underneath my wings, a spring in my soles, a bend in my route.
25 KILOMETERS. 4 hours after leaving home, I finally ended my walk at the tip of Changi Beach where the pavement wraps around a tree to form a roundabout back to itself. I gave myself an imaginary pat on the back. This has been potentially one of the most boring routes on the island, but I guess if I could write this many words about it, maybe it has been far from being a boring walk.