Huddled in a coffee shop, my great behemoth of a backpack slouched across from me like a disgruntled date, I cup my hot kopi, Singapore's very strong version of coffee. My eyes squint from protesting contacts not intended for sleeping in, and my neck creaks from hours in the aisle seat of a cramped airplane.
I glance down at my watch: 9:15 a.m.
"Well, only five hours until I can check into the hostel." Having said that aloud, the businessman nearby is now staring not so discreetly at me.
So goes Day One of this expat's grand spring vacation.
You see, the moment the clock strikes 00:01 on Jan. 1, all turn their gaze forward to Chinese New Year, which typically falls in late January or early February.
For younger Chinese generations, Spring Festival means scrambling for train and plane tickets to visit parents or grandparents in their home provinces. For most of the expat community, it's time to enjoy a few weeks in a far less congested Beijing.
For this expat, it means travel.
With a group of friends, I planned and booked a journey that would start in Singapore and then span a large part of Indonesia.
You catch me now, dear readers, right as it all begins in a coffee shop in a Singapore subway station.
And while I wish I could already regale you with the beauty and adventure of it all, I instead bear words of the travel itself. The tedious affair I've found to be quite unique to Asia. Even more so, to China.
We've all read articles about misbehaving Chinese tourists. Of course, I present my own findings here with the caveat that these illustrate the minority, not the majority. They are personal experiences.
But should you join me out here, a few tips:
Never fully relax. As any traveler knows, you have to keep your wits about you. But the attention I implore you to pay isn't necessarily for your safety. It's for your placement in the Great Travel Race.
This is a competition far bigger than you or I. This is every man and woman jockeying for their place on the subway, in the customs line, in the plane itself.
There is no such thing as successful queuing in China. You're a chump if you think people will follow basic rules to line formation. So as you wait to pass through security or ready to board the airport train, watch your blind spot. There is most certainly a little old lady or impatient man ready to buzz around you with their closest 13 relatives for a better place in line.
Get ready to stand. Let's say there are 50 seats in a waiting area and the average wait time can range from a few minutes to a few hours. Through the simple math of Chinese travel, that means this can seat about ... 18 people. Maybe.
You see, it is the truly savvy traveler who not only scores a seat but then uses that seat and about four others to lay down for a quick nap. They'll also need one or two chairs for their bags. So while you or your friend or that kindly 72-year-old next to you would also like to rest those weary feet, you'll just have to wait it out. That man snoring nearby needs his beauty sleep.
Remember to smile. Often, I feel like I'm being taken advantage of as a foreigner in Asia. I stand out like the giant, pale 'n' pierced woman I am. Especially when I lacked even a speck of the language, fake smiles surrounded me as they used that to their advantage.
I now have a lot more Mandarin under my belt, though I'm afraid not much as changed. Because let's face it, if you're not Chinese, you just don't get it. So when a middle-aged woman body checks you for that seat on the subway, smiling back in victorious comfort, all you can do is smirk back.
Ah, to travel in China.
Alas, I now leave you laden with my whining tirade following a day's worth of travel. Unable to continue typing, thanks to caffeine-driven shakes, I'm off to the outside world. I'll report back soon with more lighthearted tales.
Until then, let us all keep our wits about us and a forced smile on our cutie-pie faces.