That time I was detained in Singapore and why I never made it to Cambodia and Vietnam

I have been sitting alone in this tiny room for a very long time.

It seems so anyway. Time has a way of becoming deceptively elastic under certain conditions. Like how the three minutes it takes to eat a cupcake seems like eight seconds. Or, in this case, how time slows to a crawl when a stern man in Singapore’s Changi International Airport taps you on the shoulder while you sleepily wait at an immigrations window, leads you into a small room then disappears with your passport without elaboration.

Indeed, with your heartbeat quickly rising to something like 170 beats per minute, you feel as if time stops and you can see into the future. A future where, despite exhaustive proof of innocence, you are sentenced to be caned in public 115 times for something like “farting with aggressive odor” in Singapore’s rule-laden subway.

It is June 2005 and I have just finished more than five hectic months of travel in Southeast Asia (and parts of Asia), sometimes for work, mainly for pleasure and nearly all of it conducted during the region’s “Holy Shit It’s Hot Season.”

I am, and for this brief moment I am not remotely exaggerating, probably more physically and mentally exhausted than I have ever been in my life. The pace I maintained for my personal travels, the amazing amount of work that I cranked out, the oppressive heat and less substantial meals than I’m accustomed to have left me a shell of my former self. I am flying from Bangkok to Minneapolis – the long way, via London, due to an existing return ticket – and only a few hours into this sadistic 40 hour journey an immigrations stooge in Singapore has detained me for an unidentified problem.

My five months in Southeast Asia were, by almost any measure, downright wholesome. I did not take or buy any drugs. (Though, I was drugged.) I did not pay for sex, though it would have been easier and probably less expensive than my accursed mission to get passport photos taken in Bangkok. I did not wind up cartoon-like and slap the living shit out of several deserving asshats for conspiring to rip me off or inconvenience me purely for personal entertainment. I did not, to my knowledge, break any laws or offend anyone important. And yet, I am nervous that despite this pious record I have somehow unintentionally run afoul of some arcane rule (for which Singapore is famous) and am about to have the living daylights caned out of my travel-broken ass.

After what seems like 146 hours of confinement in this room, the immigrations stooge returns with someone who may be his superior, or possibly just a more gifted English speaker, and they stand before me, poised to deliver my verdict.

“Mr. Leif, there is a problem.” I hold my breath. “You do not look like your passport photo.”

There is no disputing this point. I do not look like the guy in my passport photo. It would even been a stretch to argue that the guy in that photo, taken two and a half years earlier, was a cousin. The guy in the photo was far paler, being that the photo was taken in January in Minnesota. The guy in the photo lifted weights and juggled frequently and was as such enviably muscular. And he’d let himself go a bit. A thin, almost uniform layer of fat had appeared on his body due to the absence of cardiovascular exercise, prodigious consumption of cream sauces and imbibing in enough Rum and Cokes each month to drown an adult hippo. All this showed on his slightly swollen face, which seemed even rounder what with the photo being taken from slightly below chin level.

Paradoxically, the guy sitting in the bare room in Singapore Airport was extremely tan, lean as a marathon runner, and somewhat worryingly gaunt in the face. For travel convenience, he had shaved his head down to the merest fuzz of blond hair. He looked haggard, feeble, in clear need of a cheeseburger and possibly a visit to a Level-1 trauma center.

The man in the passport photo weighed approximately 162 pounds. The man in the small room, I would be genuinely unsettled to learn when I stepped on a scale a few days later, weighed only 124 pounds – the weight I wrestled, just barely on some days, during my senior year in high school.

For a man of my modest stature and physique, this is a considerable weight change. Some of this weight loss was expected due to all the walking during my travels as well as the elimination of several soft drinks per day and multiple heaping piles of pasta each week. Also, muscle loss occurred without all the weights and juggling. For my size, a healthy target weight is probably 140-145 pounds, so 124 pounds was definitely bad news.

My travel pace, workload and lifestyle while in Southeast Asia aside, a key contributor to my shrinkage was entirely out of my control. I have – and this is not bragging, it’s simply a fact – an amazing metabolism. A glorious, borderline terrifying metabolism that unbelievably turns French fries into energy and microwave pizza pockets into muscle. If one weren’t a card carrying atheist, one might be tempted to assume ongoing divine intervention in order to explain my metabolism. Or possibly gamma radiation exposure, that also resulted in amnesia, while I was saving the world from an unstable, alien power source, because if we’re using our imaginations why not?

There has never been a downside to this wondrous anomaly until now. It appears, under the right circumstances, if this blast furnace inside me isn’t fed more generously than what is ordinarily available in a (reasonable) meal in Southeast Asia, it starts to eat me. Even while diligently eating three meals a day while visiting Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Burma, and Laos, my uncontrollable weight loss persisted and was, in fact, the reason that I was now on my way back to the US ahead of schedule. After magazine assignments in Hong Kong and Japan, I returned to Bangkok positively ragged and almost devoid of energy. Absorbing my dwindling body mass in a full length mirror one night, it occurred to me that pushing on to Cambodia and Vietnam for six more weeks of travel might actually kill me.

A bit dramatic, perhaps. Could I have slowed down my travel pace, turned down some work and stuffed my face with pizza and pasta in order to put some weight back on and finish the trip? Maybe. But my instincts were telling me that the situation was critical. I needed to stop now, retreat to Minneapolis and recuperate or risk a health emergency.

But there was the small matter of these officious men in Singapore. I didn’t even want to leave the damn airport – my flight for London departed in five hours – but adhering to rules is something of a national sport in Singapore and so they could not let me continue.

After several anxious minutes, I was able to prove my identity beyond a shadow of a doubt with supporting identification and the officials, satisfied by my promise to not leave the airport, cautiously cut me loose.

I limped home, ate a million cheeseburgers (normal exaggeration quotient resumed), and slowly gained weight. Possible health emergency averted, yet I always regretted missing Cambodia and Vietnam.

That situation is about to be corrected. In a few days, I depart for an albeit abbreviated, but long awaited trip to finally complete my 2005 Southeast Asia tour, where I will at long last see Angkor Wat and eat six meals a day (estimated) in Vietnam. The giddying trip itinerary aside, the sense of closure this brings is tremendous.

As if that weren’t exciting enough, I will be traveling through Singapore with a brand new passport, including a photo taken just a couple months ago. Needless to say, it looks exactly like me and I will take great pleasure in showing it to everyone in Singapore’s airport, with or without invitation, and basking in approving comments like “Yes, Mr. Leif, that photo looks exactly like you. Now may I please finish my breakfast?”

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