Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Trip Back

It was the month of December 2007. Three years has passed since the dreaded day. The sun rose uncharacteristically after a week of cloudy skies and rainy afternoons. Today I return. I checked my alarm clock and sat up in bed. There was an odd feeling permeating through me as I got ready for my return trip. It was this indescribable sense of trepidation that overwhelmed me. I wasn't supposed to feel this way. I have been through this. I am visiting as a 'veteran' today.

The flashbacks happened all too quickly. The boat-trip, the people, the boatman casting that wide grin to welcome me to the jaws of hell. The weather was unforgiving. The humidity enveloping over my body heightened the anticipation and anxiety that gripped me during this period three years ago.

As I slowly disembarked from the coach, I glanced over at the island that had brought me joy, grief, friends, enemies and most importantly, valuable memories. The lush greenery that placated the naked eye set up a seemingly harmless environment. I came here three years ago thinking it was such. I stand before it at this present day, surveying it like an old sage, knowing that this setting was deceptive.

The glare that emanated from this man in green wearing a cap twice too big for him, brought me back to reality. I took a deep breath and followed my parents and brother towards the dock. The beep from the metal detector struck a delicate nerve. Were camera phones allowed? Did I carry any contraband items? Was I suppose to greet the guard scanning this detector? Like clockwork, my mind switched from my languid civilian lifestyle to a military mindset.

It was this courteous smile from the guard in green fatigues that broke me from this trance. I berated myself silently for worrying. I am a civilian now. My turn is up. Gingerly, I picked up my handphone and house keys. Despite the self consolation, my mind was still alert. I anticipated someone shouting, 'Why are you booking in with a camera phone! How many extra do you want to sign!'

In fact, these words were already screaming through my head. I shut my eyes momentarily and shook my head. I blinked hard. No. No one was screaming at me. I was decieving myself. As I approached the registration desk, I had a feeling of deja vu. I dug my pockets for my pink Singapore IC. I found nothing. My next action was to run through my pockets again. In a moment of sheer desperation, I overheard someone shouting, 'Tuck in your shirts! Tuck in your shirts!'

My first instinct was to obey but somehow this switch in focus allowed my hands to finally rest on my wallet. As I approached the desk, I took out my pink ic with one hand and struggled to tuck in my T-shirt with the other. The soldier sitting looked up at me and smiled. Politely, like a waiter serving in a six star hotel, he told me that I was not an enlistee. I need not tuck in my shirt. I gave a smile in embarassment, quickly looking away. I knew that my cheeks would soon flush red.

This gaffe served as a wake up call for me. My turn has passed! Damn it! Enjoy yourself! Let loose!

The engines were shut as the boatman allowed the waves to drift the fastcraft closer to the pier. When it was safely anchored, family members and enlistees streamed out. I scanned the surroundings and discovered myself to be back on very familiar territory. Together with my parents and brother, I walked the length of the pier.

'WELCOME TO PULAU TEKONG'. The words printed in brown screamed from the signboard hanging over the guard room. This was it. The return.

p.s: I would like to thank my brother for this trip back. Without his enlistment, I would not have been able to benefit from this surreal experience. I made it back to the mainland without any more butterflies in my stomach. Nothing has changed on Tekong except for the personnel. The same rotting smell of dead animals/creatures/humans still persist.

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